What was the most performed play on the planet in 2006? There’s a question that pub quiz lovers everywhere should know the answer to. Something by Shakespeare? Maybe something by one of the great American playwrights? Or maybe it’s a trick question – maybe the answer is something to do with a religious festival – maybe the Nativity? In fact, the clue is in the year. 2006 marked the centenary of the death of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and in that year the most performed play in the world was his most famous work, A Doll’s House.
The play tells the story of apparently perfect wife and mother Nora. Seemingly consumed by trivial things and treated by her husband as little more than an extra child, Nora’s intellectual acumen and moral compass are actually far more advanced than anyone around her will give her credit for, but the lengths to which her dutiful love for her husband will take her are set to cause problems. Years earlier, we discover, when her husband became ill Nora illegally borrowed money to pay for treatment without his knowledge, and her crime (as it then was) is at risk of being uncovered.
Based on real events (Ibsen had refused to help a female friend who found herself in the same position, and the play often feels like a guilt-ridden apology), the play’s brutal portrayal of womanhood caused outrage when it was first performed in 1879. For performances in Germany, the playwright had to rewrite the ending as it was felt that audiences would respond badly to Nora’s final actions, and the adaptation first presented in England, written by Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman and called Breaking a Butterfly, is almost unrecognisable.
These alternative versions have been almost entirely written out of history, going so wildly against the very point of the play. However, an even more radical new version is set to play at the Young Vic Theatre from 5 February.
In NORA: A Doll’s House, playwright Stef Smith reframes the drama in three different time periods, intertwining the fight for women’s suffrage, the swinging sixties and the modern day in an urgent, poetic play that promises to ask how far we have really come in the past 100 years.
Inspired by Smith’s new take on the play, the theatre will also be hosting (RE)IMAGINING NORA, a free Royal Holloway University of London one-day symposium on Saturday 15 February that explores Ibsen’s play and its many transformations and reinterpretations. The event will bring together academics and theatre makers to give a fresh look at the play in its original context, and the ways in which it has captured the imaginations of its critics and supporters ever since. Speakers will include Tanika Gupta, Sam Adamson, Tanya Moodie and Tore Rem, editor of the New Penguin Ibsen.
It is no surprise that Ibsen’s play still has the power to cause so much debate. Whilst it may be over 140 years since the play was written and artistic censorship may be less rampant, with equal pay cases hitting the BBC right now and venues across the country having to be pushed to ensure gender parity in casting and in their programming of writers, directors and more, whatever the framework for its presentation Ibsen’s rallying cry against gender inequality is still sadly as potent as ever.
Nora: A Doll’s House plays at the Young Vic from 5 February-21 March