British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People will be brand new for American audiences when it opens this week at New York’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, directed by Tony Award winner Doug Hughes and starring Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas. For Lenkiewicz, however, it has meant returning to a piece first staged in the UK four years ago. Since then, she has premiered Her Naked Skin, about the suffragette movement, at London’s National Theatre and dramatised the life of iconic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner for the Arcola Theatre – the original venue for An Enemy of the People.
Lenkiewicz and I speak on the phone a few days before she flies to New York for the new production’s opening night. I begin by asking whether she had been apprehensive about returning to the play. “When you go back to something, it is like looking at the work of a slightly different self,” she replies, after a pause. “But coming back to an adaptation isn’t like coming back to an original play. Also, I really enjoyed adapting this at the time – it just sort of zapped along. When you enjoy something, that’s predominantly what you remember, so it was nice to revisit it.”
And staging An Enemy of the People in a different country entailed further adaptation, this time cultural. “You can work so hard on a piece that you don’t want to change it or even read it again sometimes,” Lenkiewicz observes. “It can feel like a past love affair – gone. But this has been great, because it’s involved slightly rethinking words and phrases for an American audience. It’s been a new challenge.” Amid a flurry of emails, she and director Doug Hughes worked closely on sense and meaning, subtly reshaping and re-emphasising the script so it would speak in a fresh voice to new ears.
Stockmann could be a conventionally heroic figure, a freedom fighter against political corruption, but Ibsen’s interrogation of social hypocrisy is laced with ambiguity. The doctor’s utter repulsion at the collective power of the townsfolk sees An Enemy of the People wade into darker, more fascist waters. For Lenkiewicz, this moral slipperiness is what makes the play great. “It’s not about a black-and-white hero. Stockmann has deep flaws,” she says. “He’s not just a pure truth-seeker, spreading good all around. He has his own agenda.”
Stockmann’s single-mindedness is a trait common to Lenkiewicz’s protagonists, and is something she acknowledges as familiar from her own life. “His thinking is pretty abstract. I’ve known a lot of people like that, and sometimes it can be quite hard to live with them.” She continues: “So it resonates, that relationship between society and the artist, or the scientist, or the mathematician – someone driven to the point of obsession.”