'An Enemy of the People' review – Matt Smith is electrifying in this revolutionary, rock 'n' roll Ibsen

Read our review of An Enemy of the People, starring Matt Smith and Jessica Brown Findlay, now in performances at the Duke of York's Theatre to 13 April.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Ibsen goes punk in German director Thomas Ostermeier’s shockingly audacious, fourth-wall-smashing An Enemy of the People. Adapted by Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer for the Berlin Schaubühne in 2012, and translated by Duncan Macmillan, it’s an eerily apt commentary on our current woes – and, thanks to a dynamite set-piece, is unlike anything else you’ll see in the West End right now.

It was clearly a juicy enough prospect to lure Doctor Who, The Crown and House of the Dragon star Matt Smith back to theatre. He plays Dr Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that the popular spa which has transformed the fortunes of his town is contaminated and is making tourists sick.

But, as we learnt from the pandemic, it’s not that simple when a public health crisis is entangled with money, politics, people’s jobs and special interests (see also the climate crisis). Before you can say “fake news”, Stockmann’s truth is up for grabs.

The production does take a while to get going. There’s plodding establishment of the interconnected characters: Stockmann’s wife Katharina, a principled teacher; his brother Peter, the ambitious town mayor; his initially loyal journalist friends, Aslaksen, Hovstad and Billing; and Katharina’s father, shady businessman Morten Kiil. It’s basically agitprop theatre, with each person representing a point of view.

Ostermeier’s presentation is frequently inventive, though. When arguments reach fever pitch, they’re drowned out by related music (Bowie and Oasis). There is scribbling on the blackboard walls to clue us into location and time jumps, and, at one point, the cast use paint rollers for some very literal white-washing.

But it’s in the second half that this update really catches fire. During a town hall meeting, Stockmann unleashes an epic tirade about everything plaguing society, from worsening divisions, rampant capitalism and digital addiction to burnout, billionaires, entrenched inequality, and having a Prime Minister “who is richer than the King”.

Smith is utterly electrifying as a man pushed past all endurance, who now sounds like a fringe radical – but one with a serious point about how, if the liberal majority is maintaining the status quo, you need to break the system. Interestingly, Smith’s Stockmann seems to relish this grandstanding: is he, as his brother insinuates, just an attention-seeking antiauthoritarian who wants to play hero?

There then follows an astonishing extended piece of audience participation. The house lights go up and microphones are provided for anyone to share their own frustrations. On my night, those included a tearful American couple who can’t afford children, an NHS worker sounding the alarm on mental health, a man frustrated by the scapegoating of immigrants and trans people, and a boy who fears he’ll have to choose between a living wage and a meaningful job.

It’s like a more spontaneous, and far more raw and passionate, version of Question Time – extraordinary to witness, and skilfully compèred by cast member Priyanga Burford. In fact, the whole company is strong, with Paul Hilton particularly amusing as the arch-cynic Peter, Nigel Lindsay a memorably sinister Morten, and Jessica Brown Findlay affecting as Katharina is torn between her convictions and planning for her child’s future.

Explosive, anarchic and swaggeringly rock ‘n’ roll, Ostermeier’s interpretation pushes past the play’s dissection of democratic debate and plunges us into a real, febrile one instead. It’s messy in places, but this is the kind of urgent intervention we should applaud in an election year: theatre as revolution.

An Enemy of the People is at the Duke of York's Theatre through 13 April. Book An Enemy of the People tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: An Enemy of the People (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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