Wife review – rousing look at 60 years of sexual identity

Kiln, London
Samuel Adamson’s stimulating family saga revolves around A Doll’s House and is inventively staged by Indhu Rubasingham

The slam of the door at the end of A Doll’s House was, said George Bernard Shaw, “more momentous than the cannon of Waterloo or Sedan”. It continues to reverberate, as shown by Samuel Adamson’s richly stimulating play, which uses Ibsen’s work as a starting point to examine marriage and sexual identity over the last 60 years and in a possible future. Telling four separate stories, the play also emerges as an intricate family saga in which the issue of how to achieve total liberation constantly recurs.

Adamson begins in 1959 with a seemingly conventional married couple, Daisy and Robert, going backstage after a performance of Ibsen’s play to visit Suzannah, the actor playing Nora, in her dressing room. It soon becomes clear that Daisy finds in Nora an inspiration and in Suzannah a secret lover. But, while the scene establishes the meta-theatrical nature of Adamson’s play, it also has a glaring weakness. In seeking to show that patriarchal values still prevailed in the 1950s, Adamson turns Robert into an improbably rude, aggressive philistine – almost a caricature of the husband, Torvald, in Ibsen’s play.

Joshua James (Robert) and Karen Fishwick (Daisy) in Wife at Kiln, London.
Joshua James (Robert) and Karen Fishwick (Daisy) in Wife at Kiln, London. Photograph: Marc Brenner

After that, things quickly improve, and Adamson goes on to explore shifting sexual attitudes across the generations. In 1988, we meet two gay men drinking in a pub after seeing a Norwegian production of A Doll’s House. While Ivar is fully out and noisily attacks the heterosexual empire, Margaret Thatcher and Section 28, the younger, closeted Eric feels he is Ivar’s “little project”, which suggests that class is still a determinant in sexual relationships. Even in 2019, the issues remain unresolved: Clare and Finn, a young, straight couple, struggle just as much to achieve a balance of power as the married gay couple they meet after a gender-fluid production of A Doll’s House at – where else? – the Kiln.

Adamson’s discrete episodes are held together by two things. One is the familial link between the characters. The other, even more crucial, is the idea that we are still wrestling with the problem Ibsen confronted in a pioneering way: how to balance personal freedom with equality in relationships. Adamson suggests we are a long way off achieving this. He does this entertainingly by showing Ivar dragging Eric off to avant-garde Yugoslavian movies or forcing him to read The Swimming Pool Library. But he also movingly asks, in 2019, whether gay marriage simply replicates heterosexual patterns and whether we live in an increasingly homogenised world.

The play is alive, endlessly curious, inventively staged by Indhu Rubasingham, with six excellent actors assuming multiple roles. Sirine Saba as Suzannah plays Nora across the decades, at one point cheerfully dismissing her as a “dizzy Norwegian troll”. Karen Fishwick starts as the doting Daisy and goes on to embody generations of Nora-influenced women. Richard Cant is one moment a homophobic publican and the next an ageing Ivar, nostalgic for the days of risk; and Calam Lynch impresses, whether in or out of the closet.

You could argue that Adamson is better at capturing homosexual than heterosexual relationships, but the great quality of his play is that it shows we are still waiting for the miracle promised at the end of A Doll’s House and that the quest for the ideal continues.

• At Kiln, London, until 6 July.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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