Lindsey Huebner talks to Playwright, Stef Smith as she gears up to bring her adaptation of A Doll’s House to the Young Vic stage. They discuss the power that can still be felt from Ibsen’s groundbreaking play and why it’s useful to be critical of who is writing the ‘work’.
I receive such a warm welcome at the Young Vic Theatre as Press manager, Emma Hardy meets me at the bustling café. She ensures I am in good spirits and adequately caffeinated before handing-off to the wonderful Stef Smith.
Smith is a Scottish playwright and is currently based in Glasgow, although her work (and London-based girlfriend) frequently bring her to London, not to mention all over the world. Smith is responsible for adapting Henrik Ibsen’s, A Doll’s House and transforming it into the Young Vic & Citizens Theatre co-production of Nora: A Doll’s House. I wonder if ‘adaptation’ or even ‘re-imagining’ are strong enough terms to describe the journey of this piece. As Smith says, “I don’t think a word of Ibsen’s has made it into my Nora.”
To say that Smith is a celebrated playwright would be a bit of an understatement. Aside from the numerous superlative catch phrases that the nation’s most respected publications frequently throw her way, the proof is in the accolades. Now, particularly in the present climate with such homogenous awarding bodies, such things must be taken with a grain of salt (we wrote a little about it here). HOWEVER, one cannot deny the staggering success of a debut play winning the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre (Roadkill, 2012). Additionally, the day before our interview, it was announced that Smith was one of the ten playwrights shortlisted for the incredibly prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which honours women who have created works of outstanding quality for English-speaking theatre.
Smith still counts the original A Doll’s House among one of her favourite plays, saying, “me and Nora have had a relationship for a long time. A Doll’s House was the second play I read in my undergrad but at the time, I had no idea who Ibsen was. There were these colossal gaps in my knowledge, or rather, one long, continuous gap between Shakespeare and now, so I was very green but keen. When I got to A Doll’s House, I knew the context of it being written in the late 1800s and when I got to the end, I thought, fuck, a play can change the world. That stayed with me. The bravery and courage it took Ibsen to write that ending astounded me.”
During her initial readings of the play, Smith also deeply related to the character of Nora, saying, “I also think Nora was figuring out her own desires and duties, and as an eighteen-year-old young woman, I was doing the exact same thing but in a very different context. I felt a parallel with somebody who had been stifled and I was determined not to become that stifled woman. I ended up writing my undergrad dissertation on A Doll’s House.”
Smith’s own Nora finally came into being approximately three years ago when, after numerous critical successes, Dominic Hill, Artistic Director of the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, asked Smith what project she would love to do. For Smith, the answer was obvious and had been percolating away for years. Smith’s adaptation differs from the original in numerous ways. Firstly, it tells Nora’s story across three different time periods. She elaborates by telling me, “I knew I wanted to explore the story in three times but deciding those times didn’t happen until I got the commission.” Smith ultimately decided on:
1918: the year that women in UK got the vote.
1968: the year abortion became legal and contraception became widely available.
2018: living in the aftermath of #MeToo, which brought about what Smith defines as a, “seismic shift in perceptions of power and gender.”
Smith was also keen to re-examine the character of Nora herself. “Part of my desire to revisit her is I’ve slightly reframed her as someone who is not as naive. I have always felt a slight frustration with Nora in that somehow, she’s a little girl at the start and then becomes a woman; whereas in my mind, she’s always been a woman, but she’s forced to perform as a little girl. In my version, she’s masking and code-switching more.”
At a time when adaptations and re-imaginings are omnipresent, Smith does not undertake this lightly. She says, “adaptations or re-imaginings have to earn their place. I don’t think it’s enough to be like, ‘let’s revisit this classic with a slight twist.’ Now we need to work beyond that. Earn your adaptation – at least that’s what I like to ask of myself. Why this and not something else?”
In addition to questioning the nature of the work, Smith is critical of who is making it. “When I get a commission, I ask: why me and not another writer ten years younger, or a writer of colour, or a writer who’s not able-bodied? I try to use that as a positive thing, though. It sounds like it can be quite destructive but it’s actually sort of emboldening to go, ‘no, I know why I should do this or what I can bring to this.’”
Despite being one of the busiest writers I’ve encountered, Smith is incredibly gracious with her time and with me. After Nora opens, she is working with the final year Guildhall students on a new version of Antigone. Additionally, she has a few television projects in the pipeline, including a pilot currently on BBC iPlayer called Float. She is working on numerous plays that may see the light of day either this Edinburgh Festival or the Festival following, and these opportunities show no signs of abating.
In the wake of such acclaim, Smith is humble. “My way of staying sane is to keep a light touch. I think you can enjoy the successes and praise briefly and then sort of get on with making the work,” which is exactly what Smith does as she departs my table at the café and returns to the rehearsal room.
Nora: A Doll’s House plays until 21 March. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the Young Vic website.