Kiln Theatre, London – until 6 July 2019
Wife begins with the famous final moments of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – Nora leaving her husband, children and marriage, to the astonishment and outrage of audiences since its 1879 opening. As Dan Rebellato’s fascinating programme essay explains, the play is part of a long tradition of Doll’s House rewrites and sequels which began with Ibsen’s own changes to his ending, softening the social blow. His genius was to leave the outcome ambiguous: does Nora relent and return to her family, develop a new understanding with her husband, or strike out for a life on her own?
Writers have queued to fill in the gaps and the latest, Samuel Adamson, pushes off from Ibsen into a survey of changing attitudes to relationships from 1959, via 1989, to 2019. It is an ambitious play, sometimes overly so, which delivers fascinating moments but has a tendency to fall short.
Indu Rubasingham, who has fun beginning each segment with the final moments of A Doll’s House performed in the style of the era, directs charged performances that sometimes tend towards caricature, not least in the first segment. Sirin Saba’s bohemian actress has just come off stage from playing Nora when a dressing room visit from Karen Fishwick’s tense 1950s housewife, Daisy, and her disdainful husband (Joshua James).
The women are having an affair, so horrifying to husband and society that the only solution is to pretend it never happened. It is hard to believe in these clipped 1950s stereotypes, but the 1989 segment seems more real. Daisy’s son, Ivar, played by James with a hint of Rik Mayall, sees her as the enemy. He is gay, a campaigner for equal rights, acutely aware of the constraints around his relationship with Calam Lynch’s uncomfortable Eric. He is fired up by the Doll’s House they have just seen, but how much of their problems are caused by the homophobic attitudes that are all around and how much to his self-absorption?
By 2019 and the final section, gay marriage is legal, relationships are apparently open, but Adamson asks whether we’ve gained as much as we supposed. The argument is bold, but delivers limited insight. Eric’s daughter confronts an older Ivar (Richard Cant this time), by now married to an egotistical younger actor called Cas. The generational overlaps are contrived by this point, and the suggestions that 2010s people are self-obsessed and not as free as they imagine seem to provide a starting point for further questioning.
Adamson’s play does not fully live up to its clever concept. Much of the dialogue is over-explicit, and lacking in space. On two occasions a scene that seemed finished returns, in a kind of coda, as characters continue to explain things that the audience had already surmised. The lack of ambiguity, and the apparent need to state arguments in full throughout, undermines the plays effectiveness in pursuing its fascinating themes of personal freedom versus social constraint. There is no doubt these play out through the concept of marriage just as they did in 1879, a time not as long ago as we might imagine. Adamson’s plea to listen to previous generations is the strongest, possibly wisest, conclusion.