How much will Ibsen’s 1892 classic An Enemy of the People resonate in 2019 post-Grenfell, Brexit Britain? How does it play out with younger, politically switched-on protagonists? We caught up with writer and director Jolley Gosnold about his major new version, which premieres next month at the Playground Theatre. Time to get booking!
A whistleblowing expert fights against the majority when politicians put power and profit before public safety.
Writer-director Jolley Gosnold’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s fierce political masterpiece is updated for the here and now and stars Gabriel Akuwudike in the title role alongside Freddie Wise, Max Keeble, Olivier Huband and Hannah Van Der Westhuysen. The production is designed by Alys Whitehead.
Two years after Grenfell, Here Now Ensemble presents An Enemy of the People for a strictly limited season at west London’s Playground Theatre, in the shadow of the tower. It runs from 2 to 23 July 2019, with a press night on 5 July.
Talking to… Jolley Gosnold
The founder and artistic director of Here Now Ensemble, Jolley Gosnold also founded Global English Theatre. A writer, director, translator and adapter across both theatre and film, Gosnold’s other credits include The Odyssey, Hamlet, The Course of True Love, The Infinity Mirror, Cleansed and An Honourable Man.
When did you first come across Ibsen’s play?
I first read An Enemy of the People about two years ago. I remember reading it on the Tube as I passed through Latimer Road on my way home; I stared up at Grenfell Tower and was struck by the powerful parallels between the two. I knew immediately it was a play I wanted to do because, as soon as I finished it, I turned it over and started reading it again. It’s political and personal, something Ibsen manages to do very well. I’d never seen other productions and still haven’t, but that means we’re not bogged down in its theatrical history, we’re fully engaged in making it relevant and exciting for audiences today.
What gave you the idea to update it to 2019 Britain?
My company, Here Now Ensemble, are committed to finding the best stories and plays and finding ways to bring them crashing into the Here and Now. That doesn’t always mean updating, but in this case, we were interested in how we could blur the lines between what’s real and what’s theatre. We want audiences to think, grow and be inspired to make change in their world. If we can make them feel like Ibsen’s 130-year-old play is about their present, then they will hopefully get angry and provoked to do something, to change something.
Marketing materials reference the play being two years after Grenfell. Is this explicitly part of the story?
An Enemy of the People focuses on a whistleblower who tries to expose the failures of a local council that’s putting profit before public safety. A council that ignores the cries of people who can see disaster coming. It’s a play that looks at the broken philosophy, and poisoned foundations of our society, that keeps the poor unsafe and forgotten. It’s no surprise that Ibsen’s play is still relatable because this philosophy is as old as time.
We’re standing in solidarity with the community of Latimer Road and demanding change. We don’t mention Grenfell by name in the play, it’s not a play about Grenfell. It’s a play about the people who make and let these disasters happen, a play that asks what we can do to stop them happening again.
What generally do you think theatre’s role is in responding to real-life events?
I think it’s really important that theatre isn’t a museum. We need to be in touch with our audiences, what they want and feel, and what they’re dealing with. We need to respond directly to all that, be a forum for discussion, debate, exploration and reflection. We need to give a voice to those who are, more often than not, completely unheard.
Do you have a favourite line in the play?
“Everything between people is personal”
So often we hear “it’s nothing personal” as an excuse for behaviour, but we shouldn’t let people off the hook. Decisions have personal consequences for ordinary people, people who are trying to get by, look after their families, put food on the table. We need politicians, the media, and big business to start making decisions in the public interest and cry out against it when they fail.
Why did you want to stage the play at the Playground Theatre?
The Playground Theatre is a really exciting, dynamic new theatre in Latimer Road, west London. I first encountered the space when I was at drama school, working as a runner on a short film shoot in the studio, a disused bus depot, that went on to become the thriving theatre it is today. It’s a theatre that is bold in its vision, planted in its community and committed to making brave work and taking risks. I feel so lucky to be working with team there and very grateful to them for helping us bring this important work to the stage.
How are you working with local community groups?
We want to make the play available to all. I’m from a working-class background, and I don’t want anybody not to be able to see this work because of financial hardship. Equally, this play is really important for the community around the theatre, we want them to step through the doors of the Playground and experience this story. So we’re reaching out to community groups and charities and making tickets affordable or even free. We also want to offer workshops and engage young people with theatre. If there are any groups we haven’t spoken to who are reading this and are interested in what we can offer, please get in touch with us via social media. We’d love to hear from you!
Tell us about your cast.
When I started my new version of An Enemy of the People, I decided I wanted to bring down the ages of the characters to explore lives of millennials who are politically switched on and dealing with becoming fully fledged adults. The play explores the choices we make when we start thinking about our own or our families’ interests before others. This meant a lot of characters were cut or merged, and I could cast young exciting actors who would never usually get to play these roles at their age.
I’ve worked with many of the cast before, and know the work of the others very well. They are such a talented group! I feel like one day in the future, photos of this production will be shared, and it will blow people’s minds to see these five actors onstage together in an Off-West End production because, I promise you, they are all going to be stars.
While they have all done some amazing plays, films and TV work. I’m particularly thrilled to be working with long-time collaborator Freddie Wise, who is about to hit our screens starring in the final series of Poldark on BBC the summer. Freddie is a wonderful talent, and I feel so lucky to get to work with him on this before he blows up into the big time.
What other classic plays would you like to reimagine?
I’m working on adaptations of two classic novellas at the moment: Andre Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale and Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. And I’m interested in exploring Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. These are all stories that resonate with me and have continued to do so over a long period of time. The first two, in particular, aren’t especially well known by modern audiences and I think it’s important that they are.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It’s been such a pleasure and honour working on this production, and after two years of work, it’s finally here. I can’t wait for audiences to see it. Fringe theatre is where some of the most exciting work happens in London, but sometimes it’s so easy for it to be forgotten. I just ask the audiences please take a change on the fringe, see what’s out there. I can guarantee this play is challenging and powerful. It would be a shame for it not to be seen.
An Enemy of the People runs from 2 to 23 July 2019 at the Playground Theatre, Latimer Road, London W10 6RQ, with performances Mondays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm (except 3 July). Tickets are priced £15-22. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!
Here's a snip of @EnemyPlayLondon's explosive trailer.
📽️ extended version on our Facebook page (give us a 👍 pls): https://t.co/eKbIJxBSfC #AnEnemyOfThePeople is 💯 a play for our times.@AkuGabe @GuidyOlivier @MFKeeble @hannahvdw & Freddie Wise star.#featured #Grenfell RT pic.twitter.com/328AHKdXxH
— MyTheatreMates (@MyTheatreMates) June 24, 2019