Arts & Entertainment
3 min

An Enemy of the People’s gender swap

Tarragon Theatre’s latest production of the infamous play

For director Richard Rose, casting a woman (rather than a man) to play the role of Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People is a big deal because it’s not a big deal. Laura Condlln will play the scientist protagonist in Tarragon Theatre’s upcoming production of the play.

“This seems like a radical, unusual decision,” he says. “But the working of it is so normal. Stockmann is now a female scientist and in a same-sex relationship and that’s just how it is, without that becoming the subject of the play . . . I think that’s kind of wonderful.”

Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play is the story of Dr Stockmann’s struggle to decide if he (or, in this case, she) should inform the public that he’s discovered the town baths (think health spa or hot springs) are contaminated with industrial waste. Revealing the truth means going against the wishes of his brother (the mayor) and would damage the town’s economy.

In 2014, Tarragon produced a modernized take on the play, based on a German version by Florian Borchmeyer and Thomas Ostermeier. The most notable change in this year’s remount is the casting of Condlln as Dr Stockmann.

When Condlln was suggested for the role, Rose simply thought, why not? “Last year was a success, and we were putting the show back together,” he says. “And when she was suggested, I thought, why not give a female character that voice?”

Rose says the gender switch doesn’t change the story in any fundamental way. “The [lesbian relationship] isn’t the focus of the play,” he says. “We’re telling the same story. There’s a name change and minor adjustments, but the story is the same. And instead of a brother versus brother rivalry, it’s brother versus sister.”

Another change this year is that the scientist’s wife is now pregnant. This is because the actor who plays the role, Tamara Podemski, actually is pregnant. Rose says it meant only a minor adjustment to the script — there’s one baby (as in the original) and, now, another on the way — and it helps increase the tension by raising the stakes for the scientist.

The changes may have little effect on the focus of the story — the environment and political corruption — but it’s hard to judge how a lesbian Dr Stockmann and her pregnant wife will influence what audiences take away from the play. Rose thinks that for many theatre-goers, it will be a non-issue. For others, he hopes they see it as a positive thing.

Condlln, who identifies as lesbian, and is married, says the inclusion of a same-sex relationship is a “fabulous change,” but she doesn’t give much thought as to how audiences will react to her portrayal. “I think our job is to live it out on stage and it’s for the audience to come and experience it and it’s up to them how it lands on them,” she says.

She says her focus is on “living inside” a role that she finds very interesting. “My character’s relationship is fractured. She’s very, very focused on her work, and I think that with that as a priority inside a domestic picture, there are sacrifices that are made in terms of intimacy,” she says.  “And then what happens to us over the course of the play — do we become closer or are we pulled further apart?”

“Is [the lesbian element] an essential hook into the story? No, but there are so many things about the story that are deeply human and call into question so many things, and I think this adds another layer.”

(An Enemy of The People
Thursday, Oct 15–Sunday, Nov 1, various showtimes
Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgeman Ave

Photo take by Laura Tamara