The interview with Emily Perkins starts off like most others. A couple of years ago, Perkins moved from Auckland to Wellington, where she is a senior lecturer at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters, so we've negotiated a time for a telephone chat to fit in with our respective work and childcare commitments. The irony of this is not lost on either of us as we talk about the award-winning author's first venture into playwriting: a "re-imagining" of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House for Auckland Theatre Company.

The play, which debuted in Copenhagen in 1879, made polite society shudder with its audacious critique of gender roles in 19th century Europe. Married couple Nora and Torvald Helmer appear to have a picture-perfect life but Nora has a secret and its exposure explodes blissful domesticity. She quickly realises there will be no happily ever after for her, Torvald or their children.

Fast forward 136 years and A Doll's House is as provocative as ever with its sucker-punch conclusion making a supposedly more enlightened and modern audience gasp nearly as loud as their 19th-century counterparts. It might be even more revelatory - certainly relevant - given its underlying premises have been challenged but remain, in many instances, largely intact all these years later.

In response to the play's numerous themes, the interview with Perkins takes some unexpected turns. It ends with us discussing how dominant economic systems influence sexuality and changing ideas about body image as we age. As we talk, the enormity of Perkins' task becomes crystal clear: how do you re-imagine a play that is still as brutal as it was when it was first performed? Is it possible to craft an adaptation equally compelling but that avoids going off on tangents so it becomes something else?

Advertisement

Perkins has pondered all this since she was approached about two years ago by ATC's artistic director Colin McColl and literary unit director Philippa Campbell to work with the company. They suggested she modernise Ibsen's play and, given many of her stories are - like A Doll's House - concerned with the clash of the everyday and the extraordinary, it made good sense.

She saw the opportunity to adapt A Doll's House as one she should grab with both hands but not one without risk.

"But every new piece of work should be a risk in some way. I suppose the risk in this situation is that it's so public and people, especially those who know it, come to it with certain expectations. But it would be very dull to not take on a piece of work because you were protecting yourself from risks. I have no idea how this is going to go but I have a lot of trust in Colin McColl and the cast and the ATC team."

In turn, McColl has complete trust in Perkins, describing her as having incisive wit, intelligence, sensitivity and imagination. It also helped that she trained as an actor. She acknowledges contemporising the script would have been far more daunting if it wasn't for this background.

Nevertheless, it had been years since, as a drama student at Toi Whakaari, Perkins read A Doll's House. Like so many before her, her reading of it was as a feminist text. But this was something Ibsen played down, saying it was about the need of all individuals to find out who they really are and strive to be this person.

Returning to it, Perkins says she now saw it more about ways of living, values and the enormity of making the profound changes that may be needed for an individual to become their true self. She was also keenly interested in the social changes that have occurred - or haven't - since Ibsen wrote it.

After that initial re-reading, Perkins says she left the original largely alone but decided the structure was so sound there was little point in altering that. With so much she wanted to maintain, any changes were within that structure. Perkins won't detail exactly what (or why) she changed - "that could be a bit like giving you a laundry list" - preferring to speak in more general terms. She wanted to retain the intensity of the original.

"There's rawness, a visceralness, to this play. There's ferocity in what happens and while it emerges slowly, the idea of someone radically changing their life and taking action in such dramatic style is still confronting. I was interested in how much it's about change and what we do to make ourselves safe and the way change can come in an underground but seismic way. I could have easily located the story in any number of worlds or social milieus and I resisted some of those that were more obvious, such as setting it in an upper-middle-class urban household, which would be a more direct response to Ibsen."

Her version, and she stresses that it is just one version, is set firmly in contemporary New Zealand with Nora (Laurel Devenie) and Theo (Damien Avery) possibly more new age but, underneath the surface, equally as traditional as the original Helmer family.

Watching an early read-through, the characters' respective dilemmas have certainly been highlighted and that has brought out more considerations about the role of class in determining our lives. Perkins has removed the servants from the script and secondary characters - friends of the Helmers - are more intense and pivotal to the revelations that strike the couple.

She says all writers try to find the best way to engage with others - be they readers or a theatre audience - so, in that respect, it hasn't been too different. The first draft was more about her finding her way through the story and becoming familiar with the characters; the second draft was presented at ATC's The Next Stage series where plays are workshopped in front of audiences.

"I suppose the best way to describe that is usefully excruciating but I think it's a really good set-up and I was amazed at how much Colin McColl got it on its feet. I could then feel the bits that were boring or confusing and the places where the audience responded.

"The conversations you might have [as an author] are internal but, in this case, it's been more external. Even though I am familiar with the world of theatre, the material, the subject and the themes, it has been the form which is new to me but I have enjoyed the workshop process and the more collaborative nature of this project.

"What I say is that my adaptation of it is a version of the story and if I was doing it again in 10 years time, I would more than likely do something different again."

Performance
What: A Doll's House
Where and when: Maidment Theatre, April 30 to May 23