IBSEN’S proto-feminist classic gets an update courtesy of award-winning playwright Zinnie Harris. She tells Susan Mansfield how you rebuild A Doll’s House
SOMETIMES current events mirror art in ways we don’t expect. So, Zinnie Harris and I are talking about the private power struggles of political marriages as Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce begin their respective prison sentences, having seen the death throes of their relationship played out in the national media.
Harris has written a new adaptation of A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic, which relocates the action to the political milieu in London in 1909. Her Torvald Helmer – freshly promoted cabinet minister Thomas Vaughan – is happy to sacrifice his wife to the cause of his political ambition, showing no regard for the sacrifices she made to protect him. The adaptation was made before the Huhne scandal came to light, but fact adds grist to the mill of fiction.
Harris’s Doll’s House was premiered in 2009 at the Donmar Warehouse in London, with a star-studded cast directed by filmmaker Kfir Yefet: Gillian Anderson as Nora playing opposite Toby Stephens and Christopher Eccleston. Now it is being staged in Scotland for the first time, in a co-production with the Royal Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland, directed by NTS’s Graham McLaren. Young Scottish actress Amy Manson, 27, steps into Nora’s (and Anderson’s) shoes.
“I had been thinking quite a lot about political marriages, the tension between what goes on behind the scenes and the public face, partly through high-profile cases like the Sheridans’, but also the Browns and the Blairs,” Harris says. “I think there is a fascination with what the substance of those marriages is when the cameras aren’t around. When is ambition put aside in order to prioritise the relationship? Does that happen? Where does politics come in relationship to the marriage?”
Harris is quietly articulate, deeply clever, and more keen to be back in the Lyceum rehearsal room than she is to be talking to me. She is acclaimed for her ambitious, serious plays, taking on big themes and asking searching questions. She is thrilled with the way the cast of A Doll’s House, which also includes Brian McCardie and Hywel Simons, are getting their teeth into the material.
Manson won a CATS Best Actress Award for her role in the Lyceum’s Six Characters In Search of An Author in 2008, and has since been concentrating mainly on film and television work, with roles in Torchwood, Being Human and Desperate Romantics. “Amy is absolutely amazing, I think she’s just right for Nora, she’s playful and tough and winsome, she’s playing the full complexity of the character. She is a much younger Nora (than Gillian Anderson) but in a way I quite like that. It makes her moment of transformation more extraordinary, a young woman coming to a realisation that enough is enough.”
Edinburgh-based Harris, 40, has seen her own star rise steadily since the success of her play, Further Than The Furthest Thing at the Fringe in 2000. Her work has been staged by the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Traverse, who staged her most recent play, The Wheel, in 2011, winning a Fringe First Award. She also writes for television – on three series of Spooks, as well as standalone dramas. A new drama series is in the pipeline for BBC1, as is a new play for the Royal Court, but she can’t talk about either of them.
She is no stranger to adaptations, but A Doll’s House brings its own challenges. Ibsen’s play – the story of a woman’s awakening, and her ultimate decision to leave husband and children – shocked audiences when it was first performed in 1879. The trick is to make it shocking today. “Every time I’ve seen A Doll’s House, two things happen. One is that I’m so irritated by Nora’s position from the beginning that I want to shout out, ‘Just leave!’ Also, I didn’t want the audience to be sitting there thinking, ‘Yes, OK, this was a big deal in the 1800s.’ It should feel like a big deal now. It’s a huge thing to leave your husband and leave your children, and I think it remains a big thing, particularly when you’ve seen the investment in those other relationships.”
Harris says she wanted to bring the play forward – “but there’s only so far forward you can bring it” – to the Edwardian era, the fledgling years of the women’s suffrage movement. And she worked on developing a sense of warmth in the relationship of Nora and Thomas which shows both invested in the partnership. “You don’t want him to be an inflexible toad – he has colours of that, and ultimately he can’t bring himself to see life from her point of view, but you want to paint the good stuff as well. I wanted the marriage to have warmth and playfulness, but also this immovable thing which emerges through the play, which is a much more contemporary description of marriage, I think.”
She has made the sexism of the men in the play a little less overt, but ultimately Thomas has few qualms about sacrificing his wife on the altar of his political ambition. “When the threat goes away, he says, ‘Oh thank God, we’re free,’ and Nora says, ‘Hang on a minute, we’re not free, because ten minutes ago you were telling me that you were going to distance yourself from me and put your political career first, when we should have been sitting down and working it out as a team.’ This is quite a modern idea, really.”
It is a more close-up, domestic canvas than many of Harris’ own plays, which tend to deal a wider sweep of events: wars, political changes. Having written a trilogy of plays about war – Midwinter, Solstice and Fall – she is often identified with writing on that theme. The Wheel was about war too, but shifted into a kind of magic realism, where a woman and child flee from one war zone to another across more than 100 years of history.
“War was the backdrop to The Wheel and it was important, but for me that was more a play about raising a child. Over the last 11 years I’ve had three kids, and been preoccupied with how one raises children properly in a really difficult world. And also how one reconciles internal happiness and security on a very local level against a world which is just full of despair for so many.
“It took the trilogy to work all that through. I think I have left war behind now, thankfully. But I suspect I haven’t left the big questions behind.”
• A Doll’s House is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 16 April until 4 May