Features NYC FeaturesQ&A and Interviews Published 26 September 2012

Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Rebecca Lenkiewicz on adapting Ibsen for a new audience

Tom Wicker

Those who are unwilling or unable to compromise on their ideals fascinate Lenkiewicz. And perhaps because of her first-hand insight – she is the stepdaughter of an artist – she excels at conveying the cost of this way of life, through characters like Stockmann and Turner. “The sacrifices these people make, what they have to give up – it’s almost like a contract. And if someone feels that they have a contractual obligation to produce, and keep on producing, what’s the personal loss? Do they ever mind?”

Lenkiewicz’s conviction that An Enemy of the People “shouldn’t land easily” with audiences fed into the alterations she and Hughes made to the script. The biggest of these was shifting the position of Stockmann’s harangue of the crowd in Act Four and interpolating material from Ibsen’s letters, “because we just thought, Stockmann is Ibsen,” she explains. “And depending on how you edit that speech, it can smack of fascism and eugenics or be incredibly heroic. We’ve gone for the middle-ground, which is more ambiguous.”

“Editing” is Lenkiewicz’s favoured word when describing adapting Ibsen’s writing. “I just honed it down and condensed it, rather than trying to give it any flourishes.” To this end, she consciously avoided previous adaptations, including Arthur Miller’s well-known take on the text. “I had seen the play at the National years before, but that was my only contact with it. I just read the literal translation again and again – I didn’t want other people’s phrases to stick in my head.”

From the suffragettes of Her Naked Skin to Turner in The Painter, Lenkiewicz demonstrates a liking for getting under the skin of well-known or evocative figures in her work. She takes her subjects seriously but isn’t slavishly reverential as she chips away at the crust of history to find the human heart behind the public image. It’s there in the way she talks about negotiating Ibsen as an adaptor. “I just leapt in. I wanted to be faithful to him, but you have to establish your own rhythm, if you want the characters to fly off the page.”

This is editing as sculpting, with Lenkiewicz working on Ibsen until she has the shape she wants, and a cast of fully three-dimensional characters. “You have to work out what makes them tick,” she tells me. “Think of them as funny, complicated and neurotic, rather than sacred objects. So much of An Enemy of the People is about Stockmann and his brother. What’s the touch paper? What’s the spark that makes them so angry with each other? Once you’ve made that decision, it makes the language, and their relationship, naturally volatile.”

Lenkiewicz agrees that Ibsen’s themes seem apposite right now. Watching the US election campaigns while visiting the production during rehearsals, she was struck by the overriding focus on truth and trustworthiness. “Politicians and journalists have a suffered a few hard blows in the past few years, and rightfully so”, Lenkiewicz reflects. “There have been so many lies, here in the UK and in the USA. So just in terms of who’s telling the truth, this play is timely. It’s very much about conspiracies, power and hushing people up.”

She continues: “I was reading the Gettysburg Address the other day – the ‘by the people, for the people’ bit – and I think it’s got very confused, the whole notion of democracy. The USA may not have a class system, but it’s just as divided in terms of financial hierarchy. It’s interesting – are we progressing politically or not? Certainly, we don’t seem to have.”

Once An Enemy of the People has opened, Lenkiewicz will focus on completing another play for its producers, Manhattan Theatre Club – this time, new writing. “They commissioned me a couple of years ago to do something connected with science,” she reveals. “I told them an idea I had about Marie Curie and that’s now at the point of being re-written.” She is also juggling a couple of short plays and some film work.

After that, she tells me, a break would be nice. “I’d like to stop for a while. I do think you become a bit of a bore if all you’re doing is producing and producing. You have to go out there and live a bit, think and travel and swim – become a human being again.”

Paying heed to the obsessives she writes so well, Lenkiewicz is attuned to the personal and creative perils of “being clinically attached to writing like a drip.” Charles Bukowski’s autobiographical novel Post Office, which she recently read, brought this home by making her laugh. “It’s all about him working in the post office – the boredom and tedium of it. But that novel, the pleasure we get from it, would never have happened if he hadn’t endured that torture. We can’t process life if we don’t live it.”

Lenkiewicz even takes bad reviews on the chin, as a form of communication. “Writing’s quite an isolated activity, so whenever you can link to the outside world, it’s good. I mean, you write things to connect with people, so a bad review is probably better than no review.” But if she could leave work and criticism behind for a while, what would she do? Her answer is immediate. “I’d go to Mexico. I’d find a beach and swim, and then I’d find a sweaty little town and write a film. That’s my ultimate fantasy.”

An Enemy of the People is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from 27th September – 11thNovember. For more information, and tickets, see the Manhattan Theatre Club website.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and OffWestEnd.com, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.



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