There’s something exciting about adapting a piece of work that’s only ever been staged twice in the UK, especially when it’s by a playwright as brilliant as Ibsen. However, The League of Youth, the playwright’s first piece of prose, was not an easy play to wrap my head around. Steeped in details of the Norwegian electoral system and the complexities of banking and finance, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of convoluted exposition. That’s why when Whit Hertford, Riot Act’s artistic director, approached me about adapting this unknown epic, we decided it needed to be carte-blanche pulled into the modern day.
There is a question to be raised here; why do we bother creating new versions of classic plays? When we go to the theatre and see a show that’s as true to the original as possible (for example, a traditional version of Romeo and Juliet staged at the Globe), we cannot possibly watch it as if it was 1595, nor should we. We are not a part of that time or that culture. But the story still inspires us without the need for adaptation. We connect the characters to people we’re familiar with, the setting to situations we know and the story to our own poignant experiences.
So then what is the role of the adaptor? In creating a new version, I’m connecting the story to people’s daily experience in the most natural and immediate way possible. I’m trying to bring the audience’s attention to the wealth of living elements in the piece, while stripping away those things which might cause distraction.
In trying to create an adaptation that breathes new life into the piece, we need an understanding of where and why the play was originally written, as well as the confidence to approach the work from a different cultural perspective. This is a faithfulness to the core of Ibsen’s original, but a great play is more than just its story, its greatness is also rooted in how that story is told.
The transposition of style, through culture and time, is an essential consideration. Literary critic W. K. Wimsatt called style “the last and most detailed elaboration of meaning.” Ibsen’s play is comic, political and satirical. We’ve attempted to preserve Ibsen’s biting wit, while updating the comic pacing. I felt it was essential to preserve these aspects in this new version. I am much more concerned with what Ibsen intends his audience to take away than with the specific trajectories of each character in his original play. Ibsen’s story is timeless and culture-less, but the pinnings are timed and cultured.
Ibsen’s original League of Youth is a challenging and little explored play. It has echoes of his earlier verse epic, Peer Gynt. On first reading the piece, I saw a play about a guy I didn’t particularly like making choices I couldn’t understand. Stensgard is arrogant, egotistical, and ambitious, and he makes a few fundamental mistakes in his quest for power. However, I came to realise that, while Stensgard is the anti-hero of the play, we are definitely not supposed to sympathise with him. Fieldbo (or Fjeldbo, if your Norwegian is better than mine), Stensgard’s sometime friend, is really the character the audience is allied with. This, as a way into the script, gave me the freedom to see Stensgard through Fieldbo’s eyes, which, in turn, are the eyes of the audience.
At its most essential, Ibsen’s play is about an ambitious man with political aspirations who plays on people’s emotional reactions to further his own agenda. This play is as relevant as ever, particularly in a time when emotional politicking is at the forefront of everybody’s minds. In this radical new adaptation, I’ve endeavored to bring Ibsen’s message about the intersection of personality and politics to the fore.