The Enemy…is too easy to spot

The Firehall Arts Centre is presenting The Enemy, which is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.

Against all odds, Jenn Griffin keeps a naturalistic performance alive in The Enemy. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

God save good art from simplistic politics.

Donna Spencer has adapted Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which premiered in 1882, to create The Enemy—and by “adapted” I mean “shrunk”.

In Ibsen’s story, Dr. Stockmann, the medical officer for a new spa in southern Norway, has discovered that the spa’s supposedly healing waters are contaminated with bacteria that are causing typhoid and other gastrointestinal illnesses. But the town’s economic development depends on the success of the spa and, so the townspeople gradually turn against him, declare him an enemy of the people, and do everything in their power to discredit and silence him.

It’s easy to see the contemporary relevance and appeal: environmental concerns, economic greed, fake news.

But in Ibsen’s telling, Stockmann is a flawed human being, which allows for complex dynamics. Spencer’s Stockman, on the other hand, is much more purely heroic, so Spencer’s version of the story is black-and-white, predictable—and dull.

Spencer turns Stockman—with a single N—into a put-upon woman and this strategy, which might seem feminist at first glance, backfires. Part of the complexity of Ibsen’s Stockmann is that he’s an egomaniac—and a sexist. He bosses his wife around—“Go home and look after your house and leave me to look after the community”—and there’s an ongoing gag about how he can’t remember the maid’s name. At one point, he refers to her as “the girl who always has soot on her nose.”*

Stockmann’s arrogance is the cancer in his zealotry. He has a legitimate point to make, but he also regards himself as one of “the scattered few amongst us who have absorbed new and vigorous truths.” He even declares that “all who live by lies ought to be exterminated like vermin!”

By the end of Ibsen’s play, Stockmann is speculating about experimenting on curs, which is how he frames the education of impoverished boys. In Spencer’s version, Stockman faces the future bravely: “The strong must sometimes learn to be lonely.” Ibsen’s Stockmann says something similar—but, in Ibsen’s telling, the context loads that line with irony.

In Spencer’s adaptation, the good doctor starts off heroic and stays heroic. She is a green feminist warrior working in a town in BC’s interior, which is swell, except that it’s also two-dimensional, which means that it’s hard to stay awake for it.

By the way, I’m not saying that Stockman’s arrogance can’t work if the character is a woman; I’m simply saying that Spencer makes Stockman a woman—and almost completely lets the arrogance go.

And that’s not the only problem that Spencer encounters. In the original, much of the tension revolves around whether or not Stockmann’s damning report will be published. In the 2018 update, that report is heading for publication on the town’s online news outlet. What that falls through, she dithers, but why doesn’t she just go straight to Facebook or to larger media services, who would gobble the item up?

And then there’s the question of style. Although Ibsen is hailed as the father of naturalism, all things are relative: he was writing in a period in which melodrama was the norm and, by today’s standards, his plays appear quite melodramatic in tone. As a director, Spencer doesn’t seem to know what to do with that. Naturalism seems to be the goal, but many of the players—notably Donna Soares as a web publisher and Sharon Crandall as Stockman’s sister-in-law—overact. Playing Peter Stockman, the doctor’s conservative brother and mayor of the town, Paul Herbert is darkly insinuating in a heightened but elegant manner that’s appropriate to melodrama. And, in a very impressive performance, Jenn Griffin is seamlessly credible in a naturalistic way as Dr. Stockman. So some of the performances work, but they shouldn’t be all over the map like this—and that’s the director’s lookout.

I don’t know what Spencer’s intention was, of course, but, looking at it from the outside, I’d say that she has refitted An Enemy of the People according to today’s political orthodoxies—even though a major appeal of the original is that it undermines such easy certainties.

THE ENEMYAdapted from Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People by Donna Spencer. Directed by Donna Spencer. A Firehall Arts Centre production at the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, November 14.  Continues until December 1.Tickets.

* I read the R. Farquharson Sharp translation. In a program note, Spencer says that she drew on several translations and adaptations.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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