Thoroughly modern Ibsen: Little Eyolf gets a makeover

It was written in 19th-century Norway, but for the playwright Samuel Adamson, Little Eyolf speaks volumes about 1950s Britain. Here, he explains why he gave it a makeover

In 2005, I wrote an English-language version of Henrik Ibsen's early play Pillars of the Community for the National Theatre. Pillars has a problematic last act, one that is almost impossible to play straight. Bernick, the central character, is a Judas to his wife, son and town. Then he is rehabilitated by the noble example of an old girlfriend. All her goodness rubbed off on him, he confesses his crimes publicly, promises change, begs forgiveness. It's a remarkable turnaround, and every member of the community, including the girlfriend, believes it. Given that Bernick was prepared to send his brother-in-law to certain death in a dodgy ship – the one crime he neglects to admit – it's hard for an audience to accept that no one sees through him, which might account for the play's chequered performance history.

There are hints, however, that Ibsen's instinct was to write something more complex. Early drafts reveal that he cut lines that would have undermined the straightforward idealism of his chosen final ending. It is possible that he wanted his audience to question the authenticity of Bernick's transformation from bad man to good, but then lost his bottle.

After discussions with Marianne Elliott, who directed the play at the National, I decided to insert some of the draft lines into my version. Not many – just over 30. But, combined with a few cuts and a reordering of a key scene, they gave us a playable text. The girlfriend was freed from her Pollyannaism, a new layer of irony was revealed, and the actor Damian Lewis was able to locate the wily politician within Bernick and give a champion Tony Blair impression.

The experience of reworking the final act of Pillars got Marianne thinking. After the production closed, she asked if I'd consider adapting Ibsen in a more radical way, perhaps by imagining one of his plays as a window on to a place and time that wasn't Norway of the 19th century.

I'd been asked to do something similar before, a Noughties update of A Doll's House, that famous play in which Nora slams the door on her husband so she can make sense of the world. But Noughties Noras don't have to leave men in order to make sense of things — thanks, in part, to the original Nora – so I couldn't work out what she'd be slamming the door upon. I decided A Doll's House should be left alone – though I did wonder, briefly, if it could be set in the 1950s.

The 1950s bubbled-up again after I told Marianne I was going to look at Ibsen's later plays. In these symbolist works, ageing artists attempt to navigate the expansive landscapes of the soul, and are forever threatened by avalanches, real and imagined. They are challenging pieces, and two of them, Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken, are rarely performed. One day in September 2006 I found myself reading John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, in which a green and pleasant Fifties England is threatened by a strange new outside force that undermines her self-confidence. Soon after, I put fingers to the keyboard. The scene was a kitchen fitted with fancy appliances, in a house not far from the sea. A white woman, Rita, was reading Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. A black boy, George, entered and told her he'd just seen a crone called the Rat Wife. Rita was a character by Ibsen, from Little Eyolf. George was my own creation.

Various things about this scenario would change over the following months, but at that point the important thing was that I had two characters who were interacting with each other. The source was Eyolf, but the time was 1955, and the place, England. I gave Rita a new surname and Mrs Affleck was born. By the end of the year I'd completed a rough first draft of act one. I emailed it to Marianne. "Well done," she wrote back, "full of subterranean agonies. What next?" She disappeared to direct War Horse. I immersed myself in the 1950s, and the real work began.

According to the historian Peter Hennessy, "the Fifties really matter". A few weeks ago he came to visit the Mrs Affleck rehearsal room, and talking to us, it was clear that he was proud of growing up in that decade, and of writing about it. He spoke passionately about his childhood as a time of change; of a new kind of affluence buckling periodically under the weight of fears about the H-bomb and the collective memory of the Second World War. Another advisor to the production, Dominic Sandbrook, said the same thing differently, calling the decade "the hinge on which 20th-century Britain swung".

Everything Hennessy said to us reminded me of the reasons why, in 2006, I had relocated Little Eyolf. Those uneasy post-war cross-currents of past, present and future had struck me as excitingly dramatic. What could be more Ibsenesque than a set of characters with one foot in a traumatic past and one stepping towards an uncertain future? And if it was the Fifties, I could allow those "subterranean agonies", specifically the ones about sex, to rise to the surface a little, cracking and sometimes breaking the rock-hard pre-1960s taboos that Ibsen would have recognised.

Thus Little Eyolf's patriarch became an ex-serviceman, nursing the wounds of his war experience. Eyolf, his son, became Oliver, a baby boomer, surviving his emotionally distant parents by losing himself in Journey into Space. Another character became an idealistic young town-planner, proselytising about utilitarian high-rises in the bomb-sites. An immigrant nurse from Jamaica lodged herself in one scene, a quiffed Teddy boy in another. Because of the new social context, Mrs Affleck is a play about a lot of new things. But fundamentally, after Eyolf, it remains a private story about what it means to love, and what happens when those who need love the most feel the loss of it. From the drafts of Pillars of the Community onwards, Ibsen was a master at creating richly complex characters whose humanity brings them into conflict with idealism, whose expectations are brought up short by reality. Timeless themes. He never knew the 1950s, but I like to think he'd agree that they matter, and that when my Mrs Affleck sits in her Formica-topped kitchen, staring at the fancy mod-cons that have apparently liberated her, she isn't so far from her forebear in Little Eyolf.

Out of time: Ibsen updated

Hedda, Gate Theatre, London, 2007

Lucy Kirkwood, a 25-year old playwright and scriptwriter for 'Skins', daringly updated Ibsen's best-loved play, 'Hedda Gabler' to the 21st century with a set of boho academics living, loving and squabbling in trendy Notting Hill. At the thrilling climactic moment, instead of flinging Lovborg's manuscript on the fire, Hedda gulped down the memory chip containing his life's work. Strangely, it worked.

Peer Gynt, Barbican, London, 2007

Ibsen as reimagined by Quentin Tarantino. This striking modern-dress version from the National Theatre of Iceland played out Peer's picaresque tale on a slick, all-white set which acted, among other things, as a hospital mortuary and a lunatic asylum. The trolls became Russian Mafiosi, Peer a dodgy business guru and Frank Sinatra featured on the soundtrack.

A Doll's House, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 2005

Ian Brown's memorable production of the claustrophobic marital drama drew its inspiration, apparently, from Channel 4's reality television show 'Wife Swap' and starred the talented young black actress Tanya Moodie as Nora.

Ghosts, Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1990

Thomas Kilroy transposed the play's setting from 19th-century Norway to contemporary Ireland and used Aids, not syphilis as the disease which acts as the metaphor for the family's tragic curse. ALICE JONES

'Mrs Affleck is at the National Theatre from 20 January to 29 April

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee