Preview: An Enemy of the People

“A dangerous argument can be really convincing”

If Magdalena Gabrysiak, director of An Enemy of the People – a modern interpretation of Ibsen’s 1883 play –  could have any current political figures watching at the ADC next week, she would choose Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron: “They are both poster boys for tackling the environmental crisis while supporting the building of oil and gas pipelines- they don’t translate any of their rhetoric into action. I want to wake them up!”  

An Enemy of the People is a gripping exploration of timelessly relevant political and social themes, including environmentalism, the power of the masses, and the darker side of democracy. I sat down with Magdalena and Joe Harrington, who plays the flawed idealist, Dr Stockmann, to talk more ahead of the show’s opening on the 1st of February.  

Action! (Image Credit: Bei Le Ng)

The premise of the play certainly sounds intriguing, following Dr Stockmann’s fall from saviour of his community to scaremongering villain after his discovery that the public baths in his hometown have been poisoned. “Throughout my time at Cambridge and later on,” Magdalena comments, “I’ve noticed that we are living in a moment where creators, directors and filmmakers are trying to find new strategies to engage with crises like the climate emergency- these critically important issues which aren’t always well-received by the public.” Joe adds that there are political implications within the play and in the choices of his character which he “agreed and disagreed with, but the point isn’t to give the audience their opinions, it’s to allow them to think.”   

Despite the obvious political themes of the play and the efforts to modernise them, both Magdalena and Joe are keen to avoid preachiness. It’s certainly a difficult balance to strike, but it sounds like they’ve found the right tone. “I think the main thing is to trust your audience,” says Magdalena. “We don’t think people need or want a political message hammered into them. We’re aiming at prompting questions rather than giving answers.”

The difficulties and complications of a society led by public opinion look to be one of the play’s most absorbing and thought-provoking themes. Magdalena notes the similarities of their play to the recent Netflix hit, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up:  “A dangerous argument can be really convincing.”

Rehearsal shot (Image Credits Bei Le Ng)

Joe praises Magdalena’s ability to introduce more contemporary, fun elements into Ibsen’s work. “Magdalena’s respected that a lot of audiences will expect Ibsen to be quite traditional, not necessarily fast-paced, and she’s come up with ways to make it more modern, fun and colourful.”

One of these methods is the introduction of themes and motifs of child-play, alongside the involvement of child actors. The latter of these is fairly unique in the Cambridge theatre scene, and both Magdalena and Joe are full of praises for the actors themselves. “They’re really talented,” says Joe, “and great fun to work with.”

As well as being unusual, the decision has presented some scheduling limitations, as the children are only available to rehearse on the weekends. Yet, both seem hopeful that the choice will enliven the play, as well as introduce a surprising and dynamic thematic element for an audience potentially anticipating a wholly serious tone.   

An Enemy of the People looks set to be a refreshing addition to the ADC’s Lent Term stage – combining timeless issues with a modern twist and leaving the audience with more questions than answers. Definitely one for the diary! 

An Enemy of the People is running at the ADC Theatre from Tuesday 1st until Saturday 5th February at 7:45 pm, and is recommended for audiences aged 15+. Tickets are available here.  

Feature image credits: Bei Le Ng.