Given that the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Master Playwright Festival has been staged since 2001, it’s surprising it’s taken so long to get to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
He is, after all, acknowledged to be the father of modern drama, even if most of his work was written a century and a half ago. He is also, behind William Shakespeare, one of the most produced playwrights to this day.
Yet 2019 feels like an especially good fit for Ibsen. Ask Rona Waddington, who is directing Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, opening Wednesday.
The Ontario-based former artistic director of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival says much of Ibsen’s work, and A Doll’s House in particular, resonates in an era when women’s rights, and human rights, have taken on an added urgency in our times. The play centres on Nora, a wife and mother who rebels against the social strictures of her time in a fateful bid for personal freedom.
"We’re always amazed in rehearsal. It’s like, ‘Wow, this was written 140 years ago and it feels like something that could’ve been written this year, given what we’re struggling with at the moment,’ " Waddington says.
Much of Ibsen’s work retains its power when it comes to not only writing strong female characters but in dealing with the social and political iniquities of the day. But for Waddington, A Doll’s House is the flagship of Ibsen’s work.
"It really was the play that sort of changed everything," she says. "It’s iconic for that reason.
"And it’s unbelievable to be doing it in this day and age because it works on two levels. It has universal relevance. I think this play is going to endure no matter what happens in society, because it’s filled with all kinds of truth and insight about the human condition.
"But I also think it’s dynamically relevant to here now in terms of what’s going on," she says. "In the course of the play, Nora is discovering the systematic structures that we have in place unconsciously or consciously but need to change so people can live as for equal people with one another.
"We all feel very much like we’re doing a play about what’s happening now."
The Master Playwright’s Festival has never been terribly strict about requiring participating theatre companies to mount plays by the featured playwright. In fact, it is sufficient that many plays may be either inspired by the playwright’s work or his life.
That’s the reason A Doll’s House at the Warehouse will be followed by a production of the contemporary play A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, which is opening on the Royal MTC’s John Hirsch Mainstage Feb. 20 to March 16. It posits what happens in Nora’s household 15 years after the events of A Doll’s House.
"Hnath plucked four of the characters out of the original, and he put them back in their home, but he’s stripped everything away from the comfort of that living room they once inhabited together," explains director Krista Jackson, also the associate artistic director of Royal MTC.
"So the play becomes almost a ‘forum’ is what he calls it, throwing people back in the ring to hash out their perspectives and their arguments."
Jackson says the new play, which won a Tony Award for Laurie Metcalfe’s work as an older Nora in 2017, has a more modern feel.
"He wrote this in an American contemporary vernacular, so it’s got this really contemporary feel to it," she says. "They’re in period in 1894 but they’re speaking in our language.
"One of the challenges whenever you’re directing an old play is to bring it forward and connect it to today’s audience and he kind of does that for us," she says. "It is a lot of fun."
Not that it satirizes Ibsen. Jackson says it expands the theme of the original, which is "one of my favourite plays of all time.
"It was so revolutionary and radical in its time," she says. "He believed that some women weren’t necessarily born to be mothers or wives. In order to find a place in society, they were forced into it. So he was ahead of his time."
A dialogue between Ibsen and a contemporary playwright is also on view in the theatre double-bill at the Dalnavert Museum, which is hosting both Hedda Gabler (Jan. 31 to Feb. 17) and following each performance, Hedda, Reimagined (also Jan. 31 to Feb. 17) by Winnipeg playwright Frances Koncan.
Hedda Gabler is a story of a woman who feels trapped by her station and lashes out in the climax. There is a theory that the character is compelled in her rebellion by pregnancy. Actress Charlene Van Buekenhout, also the artistic director of the Dalnavert-based Echo Theatre, happens to be five months pregnant, so expect the theory to be tested in the show.
For Hedda Reimagined, playwright-director Koncan did an intensive study of the playwright when she learned he would be the subject of the Master Playwright Festival.
"I watched a lot of his plays and I thought I would hate them but I actually really, really enjoyed them," Koncan says. "He was focused on issues of women before they were able to vote... or were able to do anything in their country.
"He was a pioneer of women and the medium, and realism in theatre, which I like," Koncan says. "I always like people who are pushing forward and are one step ahead of things."
But at least one of the Ibsen shows in the festival offers a somewhat more scathing view of the playwright, refracted through his relationship with his sons.
Letters to a Father (at the Rory Runnels Studio, 504-100 Arthur St. from Jan. 31 to Feb. 17) was written and directed by Leigh-Anne Kehler and features Ivan Henwood and Matthew Paris-Irvine as Ibsen’s two sons.
One son, Sigurd, would become the prime minister of Norway. Hans, a love child Ibsen sired with a servant, lived in obscurity as a blacksmith in Germany. The story, told in 30 minutes, suggests Ibsen was less noble in life as his fiction might suggest.
"I did make sure that it was OK to do this in the festival because we’re digging up some dirt," says Kehler. "It’s truth, but it’s not blown-up truth.
"I was so compelled by the difficulty that his sons endured," she says.
Though Sigurd achieved political success, he was driven to it by his father, Kehler says.
"His relationship with his father was so incredible. All Sigurd wanted to do was write a book and his father really pushed his political career," she says.
"Henrik self-exiled from Norway because they refused to produce his plays, so he needed to have a triumph as a way back into Norway. So he pushed his son to become prime minister of Norway so he would come back on good terms.
"That’s just postulating but the dates to match up," she adds. "As soon as his father became ill, he dropped the prime minister position and when Henrik passed on, he left politics altogether."
“Henrik self-exiled from Norway because they refused to produce his plays, so he needed to have a triumph as a way back into Norway. So he pushed his son to become prime minister of Norway so he would come back on good terms." -playwright Leigh-Anne Kehler
As for Hans, he himself became a father, amid tragedy. "He lost seven of eight children, not all of them from illness, some of them from circumstance," says Kehler.
The portrayal of Ibsen’s personal history is intended "to make people interested and ask questions," Kehler says.
"I’m hoping that it will inform the way people will experience the characters in other plays."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.