For the characters in Samuel Adamson’s decade-hopping family epic, Wife, the liberating potential of theatre lies in its power to reveal possible selves; those rare, transcendent moments when you truly recognise yourself in another human being, as if looking in a mirror that reflects both who you are and who you could be. The play, which covers an eighty-year time span between 1959 and 2042, visits successive iterations of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, savouring its endless interpretability and revelling in the theatrical conventions of each production. There’s tremulous ‘realism’ stuffed into stiff costumes, shouty Norwegian avant-garde and a desperately radical dance-theatre deconstruction that, shamefully, I’d probably enjoy a full production of. The design, by Richard Kent, is full of surprises, the abrupt curtain drops and excitedly emerging sets honour a programme note from director Indhu Rubasingham that promises to make audiences more aware of the fact that they are in a theatre. In fact, under Rubasingham’s exuberant direction, this production treats the medium as a beloved family member, roasting its flaws and celebrating its achievements with the same knowing specificity.
Wife uses each iteration of A Doll’s House to introduce a new decade and set of characters. As the door slam heard around the world reverberates through time, we are allowed a glimpse into the lives of four different generations of audience members, all of whom feel the vibrations of Nora’s decision. Adamson interprets the final scene of A Doll’s House as a transgressive escape from the mundane conformity of marriage; he argues, convincingly, that Nora Helmer’s complete rejection of an oppressive patriarchal institution makes her a queer icon. The slamming of the door becomes a Rorschach test for queer identity through the decades, a psychological reflection of the hopes and fears of characters whose multitudinous queer experience includes both oppression and liberation. As portrayed by the compelling cast of six, who are paired up in various combinations throughout, sexual identity is just one of the many subtle inequalities inherent in dynamics of romantic relationships. In a scene set in 1988, the year Section 28 was brought into legislation, Ivar (Joshua James, channelling Rik Mayall) is frustrated by his lover Eric’s (Calam Lynch) unwillingness to live openly as a gay man. The fast-pace, wit and intense horniness of their dialogue isn’t enough to hide Ivar’s glaring blind spot: for all his talk of nonconformity, as a wealthy gallery curator his privilege affords him a security that Eric, a working-class nurse, cannot rely on.
There’s a thrilling cumulative power to the relationships in Wife, which incrementally builds as the complexities of their interconnectedness is carefully revealed. When images and phrases begin to repeat, the recursive nature of the characters emerge, each fitting neatly into the Nora and Torvald dynamic established in Ibsen’s play. With heart-breaking circularity, Adamson begins and ends Wife with the same romantic pairing: Sirine Saba’s Suzannah, a pragmatic actor starring as Nora, and Karen Fishwick’s Daisy, a married art teacher whose husband Richard is an exaggerated version of Torvald. The break-down of their secret affair is depicted with careful even-handedness – the looming societal pressures of 1959 could easily be to blame for their painful split, but then so could a simple imbalance of power, one person needing the other more. All the relationships in Wife have a morbid question at the heart of them – does an older Ivar’s (played wearily, and warily, by Richard Cant) marriage end in divorce because it was always a doomed attempt to live within a heteronormative framework, or because one husband relied too heavily on the other to fund his lifestyle? Either way, you don’t have to squint too hard to see Ivar transform into Torvald Helmer.
Wife is on at Kiln Theatre until 6th July. More info and tickets here.