AYT talks to Rebecca Manson Jones, the first British winner of the Ibsen Award, about her production of An Enemy of the People
It is clear from speaking to Rebecca Manson Jones, and from giving the production page on her website the once-over, that the idea of community is intrinsic to her upcoming production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. For anybody unfamiliar with the play (as I was last week) it focuses on the conflict between parochial issues and wider, more global issues. How, when faced with the dilemma between the benefit of the few and the benefit on the many, people can become more selfish. Just Jones & is touring Jones’s own adaptation of the play, set in a close-knit fictional Cornish community, around the South West and is fusing with its permanent cast of principals a chorus of locals from each venue it visits. Jones set about working with these community choruses in workshop sessions earlier in the year, whilst still working on her adaptation. Through discussions with her actors (varying in age and experience) a much more detailed subtext started to appear than is apparent in Ibsen’s script. Relationships between neighbours/co-workers/family that developed in these sessions found themselves in Jones’s version.
I ask Jones about the Cornwall setting, how it elevated the theme of community in the play. “I felt that if we were going to move Ibsen through time, we may as well move him geographically as well,” she says. Jones heralds from, by her own admission, a “one horse town” in the South West, and emphasises the need for touring theatre to reach out beyond London and its environs. Bar two venues in London and one in Bristol, the tour sticks mainly to provincial art centres. “The intention is to make the audience feel part of the community, and to see whether that changes anything” she explains. In an attempt to tap into the ideas of democracy and Ibsen’s criticisms of it in the play, Jones asks her audience to vote for the ending they want. As outsiders to the situation, the solution to any given problem may be evident, but when it becomes personal to you, in your home town, your vision might just be clouded. For this to work, obviously, two versions of the end have been prepared, one inspired by Ibsen, the other not. This technique sets out to evaluate who gets to speak and why, and whether democracy is really democratic, an idea heightened by Jones’s decision to change the sex of her protagonist from male to female. “In bringing the play into the twenty-first century, I wanted to look at how difficult it may be for a woman to get heard above men, which added a new dimension to it”. Jones mentioned her inspiration came from the case of Miriam O’Reilly, the ex-Countryfile presenter who sued the BBC for age discrimination. I wondered if Ibsen’s canon of terrific female parts held any influence over her decision, whether Ibsen wrote better female characters and if changing Dr. Stockmann to a woman improved the play. “That didn’t come into it, really. The female Stockmann was the starting point, it was the project. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is improved, just changed. It’s more relevant to now, certainly.”
This production is particularly special for Jones, as the project proposal won the Ibsen International Scholarship in 2012, a large bursary handed out by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture to projects across the globe that are related to the works of Henrik Ibsen. “It’s really exciting to receive such a big endorsement,” she says. “It has been such a terrific support.” What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that it’s the first time the Scholarship has been awarded to a British company since its inception in 2007. I asked Jones why she thought this might be, whether perhaps Ibsen is out of fashion in Britain at the moment? “I don’t think it is that, rather Ibsen has never really reached popular consciousness. He is quite a ‘hard sell’ being a foreign, thinking man’s playwright.” I push the idea a little further, asking what it’s like to work on Ibsen in the modern day (Jones also directed a production of A Doll’s House in 2008) and whether he is still relevant today. “I really think he is. I came to Ibsen late, and there is a misconception about his work, that’s it all hats, flowers and corsets, which makes him seem outdated.” She suggests that the same applies to Chekhov, but that both are experiencing something of a renaissance nowadays.
With Ibsen’s play being originally written in Norwegian, I wonder how Jones goes about translating into English – whether she works from the original or from subsequent English translations. Rather modestly she explains she is a trained linguist, able to read Norwegian. She’s also worked in Danish. My main impression of Rebecca Manson Jones is that she is a vastly talented woman. The originality with which she approaches a project such as this, fused with her ability not only to write but to translate and direct, mean that the Ibsen International Scholarship was certainly well earned.
Rebecca Manson Jones’s production of An Enemy of the People is currently touring the UK. For more information and tickets visit the Just Jones company website.