Virginia Woolf's short story, Lappin and Lapinova, is so quietly devastating that it's almost impossible not to gasp when you read the final line. It tells of a newly married couple who create a fantasy world, a wild wood where King Rabbit and a beautiful silvery hare roam free. This secret world becomes the couple's emotional and, it is hinted, sexual domain. But as the years pass, it's harder to keep the fantasy – and love – alive.
The playwright Lucy Kirkwood, who recently added an Olivier to the pile of awards she won for the sell-out hit Chimerica, first read the story as a teenager and has been haunted by it ever since. She often wondered whether it might be possible to find a way to transpose it to the stage.
"The construction is like a guillotine, and the guillotine comes down with such finality and cruelty," says Kirkwood, sitting in the Place theatre where she is working on Like Rabbits, a sharply contemporary version of Woolf's story with the brilliant young choreographer Ben Duke of Lost Dog, a company set up from the impulse to "say what needs to be said and dance the rest".
Unlike the love match in Woolf's story, Kirkwood and Duke were originally brought together in a shot-gun marriage by the canny Lucy Morrison, who was programming the 2013 Almeida festival. But the union has proved fruitful – on Thursday, Like Rabbits hops to the Brighton festival for one night only though both Duke and Kirkwood are hopeful it might have a future life.
"I was quite wary of Lucy at first," says Duke, "Sometimes when there are words in dance it feels as if everyone is waiting for the next section of text to tell them what's happening and the dancing is just the weird interlude in between. You end up choreographing between the words. I didn't want to do that. But as soon as we met there was an openness about what our roles would be; Lucy was even up for the possibility that there might be no words at all."
Which may seem odd for a playwright. But Kirkwood is part of a new generation of writers who are redefining their role in a changing theatre landscape where even new writing theatres such as the Royal Court, the Gate and the Bush are exploring different kinds of collaboration. Job titles and the expectations of who does exactly what, where and when are all up for grabs.
Kirkwood gets cross when people want to define and limit her role as a writer. "When I did Small Hours with Ed Hime and Katie Mitchell at Hampstead, some quite theatre literate people asked me afterwards: 'So what exactly did you write, because there are only two conversations in the whole thing?' But there were pages and pages of stage directions. Fortunately, I think theatre is starting to catch up and is understanding that there are different ways to work, and many theatres are desperate to do it. People like Rufus Norris [incoming artistic director of the National Theatre] and Vicky Featherstone [of the Royal Court] really get it."
Kirkwood has written some words for Like Rabbits, but not many. She says she sees Duke as the primary creator and that her job is to "open up Ben's brain".
"I've spent a lot of time on my own in a room for the past two years talking to myself and working on scripts so it's good to be able to talk to another human being on a daily basis. It's a form of dramaturgy. We talk and then Ben goes and gives it a concrete reality through the choreography. It's stimulating. I've always liked the way dance is a distillation – that distillation is something apparent in the work of my favourite playwrights, like Caryl Churchill. Doing this has helped me access a more poetic form that I hope I'll be able to use in my future work."
Like Rabbits feels very different from most page-to-stage adaptations, not just because of its dance vocabulary but in the way it plays on the performative nature of the story's central relationship. By exploring the couple's inner lives, it accesses deeper meanings in Woolf's original story.
"It has an innate theatricality," says Duke. "It invites a strong physical language and it's a story anyone in a long term relationship that has broken down will recognise." Kirkwood agrees. "It's a story with no bad guys. Relationships rarely fail because one of the partners is a terrible human being. They fail because people change, the chemistry is no longer right, or they have different commitments or ambitions. But it's still very dark, and very, very cruel."
• Like Rabbits is at Brighton Dome on 15 May as part of the Brighton Festival. Box office: 01273 709709.