Contaminated water, politicians choosing economics over the environment, and a news media grappling with truth versus fake news.
Those may sound like themes pulled from today’s headlines, but they come from a play that’s more than a century old: An Enemy of the People, written in 1882 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Now, 136 years later, Firehall Arts Centre artistic producer Donna Spencer’s new adaptation, The Enemy, pulls the story straight into 2018, setting it in a B.C. town where a spa and waterpark draw tourists in droves. She’s added such modern touchstones as boil-water advisories and a digitally minded town newspaper that’s driven by web hits.
“There is a health springs up in the mountains and that was healthy and was for community use,” Spencer explains, sitting in her brick-walled office at the heritage theatre she’s led for more than three decades. “Then the community decides it needs another resource, so the mayor and his buddies say, ‘Why don’t we actually make a waterpark there?’ But to do that, they have to bring water in from different sources.” That introduces contamination that the lead character, Dr. Stockman, discovers in a lab report. “It could come from fertilizer in the fields; it could come from mine tailings,” Spencer says.
Stockman wants to blow the whistle. The central dilemma for others is that publicizing the story could ruin the town’s main source of revenue—making Stockman an enemy of the people. But covering it up could have dire consequences. “The truth is anything but black-and-white these days,” Spencer says. “This is asking us to question, ‘What would you do?’”
The story reminds Spencer, who’s also directing the play, of the Kinder Morgan pipeline debate here. “For many people, if it doesn’t go through, they’re losing their livelihood, and for many, if it does go through, it could destroy the ocean,” she says.
Spencer has been working on the adaptation off and on for the last 15 years. She debuted it at the Firehall in 2002, and it saw several more small mountings over the ensuing years. But she always wanted to get back to it—and the era of Donald Trump, populism, fake news, and other events made her realize the time was right for an update. “It was that theme: ‘Is the majority always right?’” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘I have to go back to that play before I retire.’”
From the adaptation’s very beginnings in 2002, Spencer has wanted the doctor, a male in Ibsen’s original, to be a woman—with Jenn Griffin playing the role in the new production. And that casting brings a whole new meaning to the fight the character mounts against her town and its old boys’ club.
“There’s a different dynamic to play with there. When women are passionate about something, we’re called hysterical, whereas a man is being brave or heroic,” Spencer says.
Spencer retreated to Little Shuswap Lake this summer to dig into the play again, wanting to bring it up-to-date for the digital era. She also went back to Arthur Miller’s 1950s adaptation of An Enemy of the People, which the playwright wrote during the nightmare of McCarthyism.
During rehearsals at the Firehall, one of Spencer’s modern tweaks becomes obvious. Playing journalists, actors Daniel Arnold and Braiden Houle get excited about the web hits the story of water contamination will get—but there are fears about how their corporate tourism sponsors will react. “A lot of the small towns don’t have daily newspapers or even a weekly anymore,” Spencer says.
Social media also plays a big role in the outcome of The Enemy, with Spencer finding ways to project its attacks in the play’s violent climax—one that traditionally involves bricks and windows. “At the end they should be questioning who is the enemy,” says Spencer of the audience. “It’s not the doctor. Is it the mayor? Or the general public? I hope they will ask themselves who’s complicit in this.”
The Enemy is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Saturday (November 10) to December 1.