Ibsen perplexed

Why modernise old plays when their message is already topical?

Mark Lawson

Screenwriters are routinely sacked from movies or have their work rewritten by invisible script polishers; the names in the credits may have provided little of the speech. Theatre contracts, contrastingly, mandate that dramatists are consulted about any change.

Some current playwrights, though, willingly surrender supremacy. Martin Crimp, debbie tucker green (she uses lower case letters) and Caryl Churchill often offer bald speech, with no characters, setting or action specified. I’ve seen productions of Crimp’s The Treatment and Churchill’s Love and Information that were entirely different in tale and detail.

This outsourcing of story-telling to directors and actors, though, is taken to an apogee of creative freedom by Alice Birch’s [BLANK]. Extending experiments with fluidity of meaning in her earlier plays, Anatomy of a Suicide (2017) and Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again (2014), Birch offers 100 scenes, from which theatres are invited to choose as many as they want. Whereas the average play-text is poetry-thin, the published text of [BLANK] runs to a novel-fat 516 pages.

Maria Aberg has picked 30 fragments for her production at the Donmar Warehouse (until November 30). Unlike some recent work of Churchill, whom Birch acknowledges as a mentor, the scenes are not completely free of context. Emerging from workshops with the Clean Break company, which gives theatrical rehab to current and former prisoners, the sketches trace clear themes of transgression, addiction, incarceration and redemption.

Aberg’s imagining draws out sub-plots including a mother’s reunion, during a house burglary, with a daughter who is selling sex to buy drugs. In other strands, a woman gives birth in jail, and a victim of serial domestic violence insists to a sceptical friend that she has finally chosen well. Thirteen of the cast of 16—with especially energetic and flexible contributions from Zainab Hasan, Jemima Rooper, Thusitha Jayasundera and Lucy Edkins—feature in the longest section, which burns through 67 pages. A dinner party with dark twists, it resembles Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party, rewritten to accommodate the plant-based food, cocaine-taking, and same-sex couples that are more a feature of middle-class entertaining today.

DIY novels, asking the reader to make their own sense from chapters stacked randomly in a box, proved a brief 1960s fashion. More sensibly delegating narrative to a director, the make-your-own-play movement looks to have greater longevity, especially if as vividly visualised and acted as [BLANK]. It will be intriguing to see what other productions do with these scenes, or some of the 70 unused ones.        

The ghost of Henrik Ibsen, if haunting British theatres, might be perplexed to find his plays taking so many vacations from the late 19th-century Scandinavia where he left them.

So far this year, Calcutta was the setting for Tanika Gupta’s A Doll’s House (Lyric Hammersmith); Ibsen’s folkloric protagonist Peer Gynt became 21st-century citizen Peter Gynt in David Hare’s National Theatre version; Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s An Enemy of the People (Nottingham Playhouse) made the male lead female and looked like an episode of The Killing. At Chichester, Hedda Gabler kept her gender, but as a modern mother, in Cordelia Lynn’s Hedda Tesman. Now, Ghosts travels from 1881 Norway to present-day India and translates into When the Crows Visit by Anupama Chandrasekhar at London’s Kiln Theatre (until November 30).

As an Ibsen obsessive, I have seen all five, and they expose a paradox. Ibsen is so popular—the next-most-staged as well as second-greatest playwright after Shakespeare—because of themes that have not only retained, but increased, their relevance. An Enemy of the People involves whistle-blowing and political mob intolerance; A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler dramatise restrictions on female self-expression that shamefully still exist; Ghosts turns, long pre-DNA, on inherited traits and euthanasia.

But, if old plays already contain such topicalities, what is gained from modernising them? It is surely more striking to see people being feminist or anti-corporate in the 1880s than pursuing the same values now.

In Chandrasekhar’s When the Crows Visit, Ibsen’s trope of inherited venereal disease becomes a family pattern of male sexual violence, which is a plausible substitution. But the hypocritically moralistic Pastor Manders, one of Ibsen’s most vivid characters, becomes, less interestingly, a corrupt cop. Oddly, this version of Ghosts is in one sense less contemporary than the original, jettisoning its prescient examination of mercy-killing, even though Ibsen’s final scenes plead to be set in a Swiss Dignitas clinic. Indhu Rubasingham directs with her customary dash and atmosphere (including ominous shadows of giant crows), but 2019’s quintet of Ibsen translocations have collectively suggested that his plays move less once moved.

This is a frustrating time of year for seekers of serious theatre, with productions bumped off at November’s end to make way for the pantos and Santa-shows. As a result, there’s only another fortnight to see the productions above, and just a week for The Antipodes (Dorfman, National Theatre).

Get there if you can because the dramatist, 38-year-old Annie Baker, is a startlingly original voice. Two previous plays seen at the National, The Flick and John, established the Baker recipe of long, slow exploration of off-beat settings—a failing art-house cinema, a B&B near an American Civil War site—with characters who alternate sharp short comic repartee with torrential monologues that may be true or tactical. For unnervingly long spells, there may be no speech or even people on stage.

The Antipodes features dressed-down creative types in a grimly minimalist boardroom, brain-storming what might be a box-set, movie, ad campaign, even a political party. They suspect the solution may involve some kind of “monsters”, but there are typically Baker-vague hints that something monstrous is heading for the office.

If you like plays to have a take-away message, there’s one here about the stories we tell ourselves and others to impose order on the world. More importantly, though, Baker continues to rethink theatrical storytelling: structurally, linguistically, visually—and thrillingly.

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