Stef Smith on reimagining A Doll’s House: “I couldn’t just wrench the play out of Ibsen’s hands”

Stef Smith has wanted to reimagine Ibsen’s iconic play A Doll’s House for years. Now, for the Citizens’ new season, she gets the chance

Stef Smith
Stef Smith

It was in 1879, exactly 140 years ago, that Ibsen’s Nora first slammed the door on her marital home, her husband and her three young children, in what is perhaps the most famous farewell scene in the whole canon of European drama. At the time, the play’s central image of a young woman resolving to put her own integrity and self-fulfilment ahead of her “sacred duty” to home and family was so furiously controversial that Ibsen actually had to rewrite the ending for the play’s German premiere; and even today, in a society where women’s status has changed in so many ways, motherhood remains as sacred a value as ever, and the moral judgment on women who walk away from it equally savage.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Stef Smith – rising star of the younger generation of Scottish women playwrights – has been drawn to Ibsen’s play ever since she first read it as a theatre student at Queen Margaret University, more than a decade ago. “I think Nora and I just met each other at the right time,” says Smith now, reflecting on the power of this story about a woman finding herself, and choosing her own path. In 2007, she chose the play as the subject for her final year dissertation; she began to have vague visions of a completely modern version of it, reimagined in the light of women’s history over the last century.

After she graduated from Queen Margaret, though, Smith’s career moved rapidly into the world of new playwriting. In 2009, she wrote the script for Cora Bissett’s acclaimed site-specific show about people-trafficking, Roadkill. Since then, she has scored similar international success with plays including Swallow and Girl In The Machine for the Traverse, and Human Animals, at the Royal Court in London in 2016.

Yet although almost all her conversations with directors over these years focused on possible new work, the idea of a new version of Nora’s story never left her. In 2013, during a stay at the Loch Long artists’ retreat Cove Park, she described it to Citizens’ artistic director Dominic Hill, during a conversation about theatrical dream projects; he too was unable to forget it, and when he began to formulate the Citizens’ women-led programme for 2019 – to be performed mainly at the Tramway, while the Citizens’ Theatre undergoes its massive rebuilding project – Smith’s idea was one of the first on his list. The result is Smith’s play Nora: A Doll’s House, set to open at the Tramway next weekend; it is her first-ever adaptation of an existing play, and she could hardly be more excited to see the production taking shape.

“It really is a different muscle you’re using,” says Smith, “when you adapt another playwright’s work. I always knew that if I wanted to do a version of A Doll’s House, it would have to be a complete reimagining, and not just a slight adaptation. I truly love the original play, and I didn’t want to tinker with it. It had to be a version as radical as I could make it, as radical, in its own way, as the play itself. I also knew that I wanted to set the play across different time-frames, and to work on breaking down its traditional three-act structure into something more fluid and poetic, arguably more feminine.

“The process of doing that, though, was fascinating; I found I couldn’t just wrench the play out of Ibsen’s hands. It was almost a tender experience. Ibsen shows such intense empathy in this play, such a sensitivity to female experience, and such courage in giving voice to it; what I had to do was to work my way gradually into the full meaning of the story, and then give myself permission to retell it, in my own way.”

The result is a play which revisits Ibsen’s story through the characters of three different Noras, played by three different actresses, each in a different time. The first is living in 1918, the year when women in the UK were first able to vote. The second is in 1968, at the height of the Sixties sexual revolution. The third is living through the current #metoo moment; and Smith hopes that each of them is as psychologically and socially interesting as the others, in terms of the pressures on women, and the choices they face.

“Despite all the social progress of the last century,” says Smith, “I think it is still incredibly easy for women to get trapped, by their own expectations as well as other people’s. Among other things, A Doll’s House is a play about money; and women can be trapped by money and finances, as well as by childcare and other family responsibilities. It can still be difficult to tell the difference between what you think you want, and what you really want; and sometimes, you can lose track of yourself altogether.”

The Citizens’ production of Nora will be directed by Elizabeth Freestone, associate director of English Touring Theatre, whose superb Rape Of Lucrece starring Camille O’Sullivan first alerted Smith to her talent as a director; she has described Smith’s play as “a galvanising call to arms,” unashamedly asking the audience who we want to be today, and how we want to treat women. And for Smith herself, the aim is to keep giving women, above all, the chance to see their own experience reflected on stage. “What’s so wonderful about Ibsen’s play,” she says, “is that it’s not only courageous, but utterly human and compassionate. His writing has this profound insight into people’s private emotional worlds, their ultimate loneliness and isolation. And if this version of Nora can make just one person in the audience feel a little less alone on the journey they’re on, then I’ll be pleased; very pleased indeed.” - Joyce McMillan

Nora: A Doll’s House is at the Tramway, Glasgow, from 15 March until 6 April