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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Reinterpreting Ibsen: The Enemy gives 19th century political drama a contemporary spin

Donna Spencer’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People is viewed through a modern and female lens

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People may not have the same name recognition as A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler, but like the upcoming adaptation by the Firehall Arts Centre’s Donna Spencer, they have all seen their share of reinterpretations.

Originally written in 1882, An Enemy of the People is the story of a spa being built in a small Norwegian town. Discovering the baths’ drainage system is seriously contaminated, the spa’s medical officer alerts the town’s authorities, only to be rebuffed because of the potential costs involved in fixing the problem.

While following the central plot of Ibsen’s original story, in Spencer’s The Enemy the setting has been wholly updated to modern times, and Ibsen’s central character has been recast as a woman.

“I didn’t change the story in the play, the environmental story is still there,” says Spencer. “But while it is talking about environmental issues it’s really about individual thought, and the rights for individuals to be able to feel freely that they can speak their mind.”

For Spencer the big question in The Enemy revolves around whether the majority is always right.

“If we have majority votes, and everybody votes, does that make things right?” she asks. “So, it’s really a question about stimulating people’s rights to express what they feel, and in this case, be able to express an opinion, which is based on fact, about the contamination of the spa.”

For Spencer though, a self-professed political junkie, there is much more going on in The Enemy than simply dealing with the environment.

“It is about freedom of speech, and people’s ability to express what they’re feeling or what they know factually; not against the majority, but in response to the populism that’s going on,” she says. “We have to be able to stimulate our young people to think on their own and to be able to question things.”

Self-described political junkie Donna Spencer reinterprets Ibsen's 19th century play "in a different way at a time when this story needs to be told again."
Self-described political junkie Donna Spencer reinterprets Ibsen’s 19th century play “in a different way at a time when this story needs to be told again.”

On the political front, Spencer is also toying with the idea of giving audiences an opportunity to weigh in by allowing them to vote after each performance.

“I’m not sure it will actually happen, but we’d ask something like, “Would you go for a raise in taxes if you knew it was going to clean up the water system?” she says.

Along with a bigger view into the politics of Ibsen’s original work, Spencer also wanted to examine the story from a female viewpoint.

“There’s something about all of Ibsen’s other female characters who are all pretty much victims. I mean Hedda Gabler is a strong woman, but she ends up killing herself,” explains Spencer. “I don’t think he was being untruthful in what he was writing, but there was something else in the back of my mind that said, you know women should be able to say these things as well.”

By updating the play’s setting and period, Spencer’s ultimate goal is to make The Enemy relatable to audiences today, complete with cellphones and social media.

“My goal was to try to adapt it so it could be something that would be happening in an interior small town in B.C.”

Along with writing this adaptation, Spencer also finds herself in the director’s chair. Currently in the first stages of rehearsal at the time of our interview, Spencer is excited by the collaborative spirit being built with the company.

“I think why this company is so excited about it is because it’s telling the same story that [Ibsen] wrote, in a different way at a time when this story needs to be told again,” she says.

The Enemy opens at the Firehall Arts Centre on November 10 and continues through December 1. Visit for tickets and information.

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