Consisting of snapshots of successive generations of people connected to each other and constrained by the word ‘wife’, Samuel Adamson’s new play grabs at big, enduring questions about gender and queerness through the ages. It’s also, gloriously, often as camp as Christmas: think ‘The Hours’, but with killer putdowns.
‘Wife’ opens with the final scene of a starchy, period-dressed staging of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, as heroine Nora leaves her husband to find new ways to define herself beyond marriage. Then, it’s backstage. Suzannah, the actress playing Nora, is visited by Daisy, her secret lover, and Daisy’s husband.
From there, and then (1959), we skip to a gay couple whose night out in a straight pub –rather than a leather bar – in 1986 exposes the tensions and inequalities in their relationship. Then we land in 2019, as soon-to-be-married Clare tracks down Ivar, the love of her father’s life, needing answers about why they split.
After that, there’s a final jump into the future, to the backstage of another version of ‘A Doll’s House’. Every scene in ‘Wife’ begins with characters in different decades having seen different versions of Ibsen’s play. Nora walking out on her old life is a liberating, an enraging or a haunting idea, depending on who’s talking about her, and when.
‘Wife’ is at its best when it’s digging into how privilege makes it considerably easier for some people than others to challenge convention. Is it easier to defy gender expectations in the theatre than as a suburban housewife? Is it safer, as a gay man, to say you’re living a post-Nora life if you’re a wealthy gallery owner?
Director Indhu Rubasingham stages these questions playfully. She undercuts the script’s clumsier moments with a sharp wit. And the cast, who play multiple characters that resonate with each across the decades, sink their teeth into the juicier opportunities of their roles. As various characters, all called Suzannah (including one playing Nora’s husband in a gender-swapped 2019 staging), Sirine Saba is both larger than life and entertainingly world-weary.
‘Wife’ sometimes stumbles in trying to do too much. But although it may be flawed, it is still deeply enjoyable and often moving. It also works as an ultimately uplifting love letter to theatre. It might poke affectionate fun at the form’s more po-faced tendencies, but ‘Wife’ never concedes that theatre can’t make a difference. Nora endures, even if only in the faint names of every actor to play her, scribbled inside a prop.