Melia Bensussen has been itching to take on A Doll’s House for a long time. The Obie Award-winning director got that chance when the Huntington Theatre Company tapped her to direct Henrik Ibsen’s oft-staged 1897 drama. We spoke with Bensussen, who serves as the chair of the performing arts department at Emerson College, about the new adaptation, which gets its American premiere at the BU Theatre Jan. 6-Feb. 5.
What drew you to this play? I have loved this play for a long time, and been just fascinated by his [Ibsen’s] work, because I think that he really speaks to our challenges in our contemporary society. I think especially since the election that’s even more the case, which is really interesting to me. You know, we started thinking about this title a year ago, and you just never know where this work is going to take you. He is really wrestling with what it means to be an individual trying to retain your individuality in society. Especially in an aspiring middle class with a relatively rigid moral code…and he talks about it in some of his writings, and in some of the criticism about it, really talks about how much of an anarchist he is. How he’s trying to understand, post-Darwin, post-Marx—because he’s writing right after Darwin’s Evolution of the Species, right after Das Kapital—but the things that he’s grappling with aren’t touched by either of those great thinkers. It’s morality and marriage and intimacy. And how can you really love somebody and be true to yourself? And I think that’s just such a relevant question, always. He’s using the woman in this play as a stand-in for all of us. How can we truly be ourselves while we make the compromises we need to make to have any kind of societal success or success in our intimate relationships? These are questions for me still, as I’m sure they are for all of us.
The idea of a man not seeing a woman as his equal seems relevant now more than ever… Yes! I mean, what is so terrifying about a woman’s power, or a woman’s intuition, that still disconcerts us?
Do you think the play seeks to answer that question, or just poses it? That is a great question. I think it gives us much more interesting questions than it answers, but he [Ibsen] … does give us a couple of alternatives. He doesn’t paint a bleak picture. I think what he’s saying fundamentally—and it is a question—is, can you get in touch with your own sense of what’s right, your own sense of self, even when society is telling you you’re wrong? And that, I think, is a particularly interesting message right now. Do we know what’s right and wrong anymore? We’re so divided now, and we vilify each other in this country. And there are no villains. Everybody’s point of view has merit, and the question comes, how do you reconcile these points of view? And also, who’s genuine and who’s just speaking the party line?
What’s new to this staging? There are a couple things that are different. One is that this is the American professional premiere of an adaptation by a really gifted playwright from England called Bryony Lavery. This adaptation is much more direct, it has much less foreignness or frou-frou in the language, if you know what I mean. It aims to speak to us in a contemporary voice. And the set and the costumes are all very influenced by the painter Edvard Munch, we know him from The Scream. His paintings in the ‘20s are very free and colorful and emotional, and that sense of freedom and emotion and color is really influencing the staging and the design. I want it to not feel like ‘Oh, those old people in those olden days.’ I think the danger with a play that’s this good is that we freeze it as a classic and we think that it’s about other people and not about ourselves. And this production is immediate. It’s an interracial cast, it’s a young cast. They’re fierce and they’re passionate, and that’s what this play needs to be.