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
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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