Pushed to the Limit: A Comparison Between Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock and His Adaptation of A Doll’s House

Hattie Morahan in A Doll's House; Ryan Whittle in Punk Rock
Hattie Morahan (left) as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House at the Duke of York’s Theatre, a masterful update of Ibsen’s text; Tom Myles (right) as Chadwick, the brooding class swot, in Punk Rock at Theatro Technis, a barnstorming production hissing with energy and menace.

Simon Stephens has long been one of the most highly regarded playwrights in the UK – but only in the last year, with his smash-hit adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has he become one of the most commercially successful. Stephens’s plays, such as the harrowing Iraq-inspired Motortown and the stark meditation on 7/7 Pornography,  are typically unflinching, emotionally raw and intensely controversial – the stuff of subsidised new writing theatres but usually not of the West End. This has led critics, and indeed Stephens himself, to comment on the incongruity of his newfound mass success.

Fortunately, last week the London theatre presented a unique opportunity to compare these two incarnations. In Camden Town, Theatro Technis – a tiny, intimate fringe venue – played a revival of Stephens’s acclaimed 2009 Punk Rock, last seen in London at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010; in the West End, the Duke of York’s Theatre played a large-scale, polished production of A Doll’s House, Stephens’s adaptation of the 1879 classic by Henrik Ibsen. I saw both productions.

Both A Doll’s House and Punk Rock were overwhelming in their quality and power, but despite their difference in tone and scale it occurred to me that there was an overriding continuity between the two plays. Stephens, describing what attracted him to Ibsen, said: “Ibsen’s so often seen as static. But his plays are…all about these big primal urges’.” This comes through in the great energy, passion and pace of A Doll’s House; it’s not incidental that these “big primal urges”, great outpourings of frustrated anguish, also clearly come through in Punk Rock.

In both plays, the central character (William in Punk Rock, Nora in A Dolls House) feels stifled and imprisoned in what they see as a limited space that doesn’t allow for their creativity to be expressed. A Doll’s House, set in small-town Norway in the nineteenth century, homes in on the domestic confinement felt by the housewife Nora (brilliantly played by Hattie Morahan), while Punk Rock is set in a modern-day public school and focuses on schoolchildren feeling trapped in their environment. Both plays set store by the shock factor. A Doll’s House was famously controversial on its premiere for its flouting of 19th-century marital norms; Punk Rock, in transposing a Columbine situation to a middle-class setting, is similarly provocative for modern spectators.

Nora, unlike William, attempts to deny that she is trapped to begin with; in an early scene she tries to delude herself, tellingly saying “I’m free…to have the home exactly the way Torvald likes it”. However, she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the way things are. Both Nora and William eventually end up being pushed to commit an extreme action. They transgress societal taboos – although the iconic door slam at the end of A Doll’s House is far less taboo to a modern audience than the terrible act of violence that William commits.

However, before her “turning point”, we see how Nora has come to internalise the way her husband speaks. Her opinions are his opinions; she doesn’t seem able to think for herself. At an amusing yet significant point in the play – one of Stephens’s potent embellishments of Ibsen’s text – her friend Kristine declares: “I need something to make me think!” Nora cautiously responds: “Are you sure?” Nora has entirely internalised Torvald’s view of the woman as homemaker, who simply isn’t meant to think. Indeed, when Nora first speaks to Kristine, she says “I’ll tell you one thing about myself”, but then goes on to talk in depth about her husband’s promotion. This highlights that she lives vicariously through her husband’s career successes.

In contrast, William in Punk Rock is a much more self-aware character. From the very beginning of the play, he comes across as a nervous type, albeit articulate and intelligent (he is exceptionally well portrayed by Ryan Whittle). Disturbingly, William indirectly foretells what happens later on in the play, when he says of the continually bullied Chadwick (powerfully and sympathetically played by Tom Myles) that “one day he’s gonna snap”. William is, in fact, the one who finally “snaps” from Bennett’s relentless bullying.

Nora, on the other hand, very slowly comes to the realisation that she has always been bullied by her husband, but in an altogether far more subtle way than Bennett’s crude and overt bullying in Punk Rock. While Bennett’s bullying clearly has much more of a violent and disturbing edge to it, Nora is simply continually patronised, although in a seemingly “kind” way (Dominic Rowan, who plays Torvald, does this to infuriatingly good effect; Torvald never tires of naming her after diminutive, fragile birds, such as “my little bluebird”, “frightened little dove” and “swallow”).

Ultimately, Nora learns to think completely for herself and break free from the mental framework imposed upon her by her husband. Nora experiences a moment of clarity when she realises that everything she has been living for has been false (“none of this has been real”); she’s been played with “like a doll” by her husband, taught not to have any thoughts of her own but just to passively take in all of his opinions as the truth of things. She finally and damningly confronts Torvald, claiming that she has never been happy, in an incredibly potent outpouring of passion.

William, to a lesser extent, confronts Bennett when he can’t take any more of his intimidation and hectoring, saying that Bennett is “just an awful empty vacuous space”. Yet, ultimately, William is pushed so far to the limit that he loses his mind completely. He becomes more and more deranged, and in fact becomes that which he hates – a version of Bennett, taken to his logical extreme. William is the bully at the end of Punk Rock, high on power and disturbingly altered from the sweet if rather nervous boy we are introduced to at the beginning. Ryan White as William, and Hattie Morahan as Nora, were very impressive in conveying these transitions, both of which were utterly compelling and realistic. Indeed, it is the actors in both productions that elevate the material – itself exceptionally emotive and powerful – into something unforgettable.

Both A Doll’s House and Punk Rock are accomplished pieces of drama in their own right, and in their differences in tone and setting they showcase Stephens’ versatility as a playwright and adaptor. Although they are, at first glance, such completely different plays, they share a common ground: in both, the main protagonist strives to break out of a stifling conformity that surrounds them and to think freely for themselves. Stephens has said of Punk Rock: “It is a spirit of wanting to get out and destroy the uncreative, of wanting to be dissident and to buck against the system.” This can equally be said of A Doll’s House.

Punk Rock finished at the Theatro Technis on September 6, but A Doll’s House continues at the Duke of York’s Theatre until October 26.

Ana Malinovic

About Ana Malinovic

Ana graduated from Warwick University with a BA in English and American Literature in 2010. Her dissertation was centred on dystopian elements in the fiction of Kafka. She enjoys uncovering innovative works of fiction by a diverse range of authors. She also spends much of her time roaming around London's arts and culture scene overexcitedly. Check out her blog

Ana graduated from Warwick University with a BA in English and American Literature in 2010. Her dissertation was centred on dystopian elements in the fiction of Kafka. She enjoys uncovering innovative works of fiction by a diverse range of authors. She also spends much of her time roaming around London's arts and culture scene overexcitedly. Check out her blog

Leave a Comment