From Pillars of the Community and Mrs. Affleck through Larisa and the Merchants to the glory of The Light Princess, creative versions and adaptations have distinguished Samuel Adamson's output as a playwright, complementing his original work (Clocks and Whistles, Southwalk Fair) which has often focused on diverse relationships in modern, metropolitan contexts. In a sense, Adamson's new play, the ambitious, exciting Wife, combines the two strands of his output by placing and tracing a queer current around A Doll's House.
Four (imagined) London productions of Ibsen's play are woven into the fabric of Adamson's. The first, in 1959, brings together Suzannah (the actress playing Nora) and a young art teacher, Daisy, who sees the production with her disgruntled spouse (his verdict: "My Fair Lady was better"), as the connection between the two women is revealed to be rather different than it initially appears. The second, in 1988, finds a gay couple in a straight pub, assessing the impact of a just-watched Norweigian production and Nora's enduring significance for queer audiences as a conformity-challenging heroine. The third, in 2019, shows an "intersectional" fringe production resonating with some of the histories of the play's characters and their descendants. The last turns what appears to be a flashback into a futuristic scenario that speculates on Nora's significance - and that of theatre itself - in the years to come.
Through the characters' diverse reactions to the drama, Adamson examines the ways in which a canonical text like Ibsen's might maintain or modify its subversive potential through the years. Daisy's husband sees A Doll's House as lacking a fourth Act. Adamson provides that here, offering a rich exploration of the identity category of "Wife" and of (gay) liberation: what might happen after the (literal and figurative) slamming of the door. (And what might happen if the door doesn't get slammed, after all.)
Aside from its intertextual engagement with Ibsen's play, Wife is an allusive work in other ways, incorporating references to Elizabeth Taylor (novelist and actress), Alan Hollinghurst, Gabriela Zapolska, My Beautiful Laundrette, Kirsty MacColl (cherishably described as "a Proustian madeleine for every fucking Dorothy in his fifties!") and (yup) Game of Thrones. In the backstage encounters, there's also a strong suggestion of another text that Adamson previously adapted for the stage, All About My Mother (and a line from All About Eve gets quoted here). In addition, a few unspoken but evident inspirations reveal themselves: Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House, Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride, and, especially, Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which also explored how a text might resonate for queer audiences through the decades. Wife develops its own tone, but these echoes are important, since they establish the play's place within the canon of gay literature, works that have endured through the years, connected, like the actresses who've played Nora, and the signed tarantella tambourine that's one of the play's significant symbols.
Adamson's dialogue is generally a pleasure to listen to, the Rattiganese of the opening Act giving way to some breathtakingly rude put-downs in the contemporary scenes. With footlights ever present in Richard Kent's design, Indhu Rubasingham's fluid, involving production negotiates the play's shifts from tender emotion to acerbic filth with great skill. The transitions between time periods are deliciously handled - especially the one that takes us into the interval, with a supreme meta flourish that brings the house down. The choice of interval music - Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan - is on-the-nose but exciting.
A couple of moments smack of flaunted research and the third Act, though lively and entertaining, is less convincing than the first two in some of its developments. But the cast keep things buoyant, creating vivid, memorable characters throughout. Effective doubling and tripling of roles allows Joshua James to be dislikeable as the threatened '50s spouse then gorgeously, waspishly, combatively gay as Ivar in the 1988 episode and hilarious as an eager-to-please "straight white male" gingerly navigating contemporary identity politics in 2019. Calam Lynch is brilliant as Ivar's closeted "swain" and, later, as a decidedly uncloseted actor, while Richard Cant triples beautifully as an eager, lovelorn '50s stage star, a homophobic '80s landlord, and then as the older Ivar, a former firebrand realising the extent to which he's compromised himself.
Karen Fishwick brings a touching ardency to Daisy, alerted by Nora's example to the fact that "one should always get oneself out of one's bind" yet not quite able to follow that example in her own life. Sirine Saba is great as the four time-spanning Suzannahs, combining actressy wit with a sense of the tenacity needed to survive, personally and professionally.
Adamson's astuteness means that Wife doesn't fall into the easy trap of merely sentimentalising theatre - witness the last Susannah's description of Nora as a "dizzy Norwegian troll." But, constructing a queer continuum around Ibsen's iconic drama, this moving, funny and surprising play nonetheless makes a complicated case for the form's ability both to preserve continuity and inspire change - for actors and audience members alike.
Wife is booking at the Kiln until 6 July.