Public Enemy

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Monday, 13 May, 2013
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play originally entitled 'En folkefiende' (or 'An Enemy of the People' in English) is revisited in a new version by David Harrower.

What do you do if you discover something nasty which is going to affect the whole of your town, your friends, relatives and visitors to the locality? Well, in the case of Dr Thomas Stockmann, the central character in this play, he thinks he is going to be lauded by his community for being astutely observant and mindful of their well-being. But it is the old story of the what happens to the bearer of bad news – with something of a political sting in the tail.

The setting here is a spa town. It's the kind of place which attracts visitors because people believe it can restore or improve their health, or as one character puts it: “The hope that springs in thermals”. So when Dr Stockmann (Nick Fletcher) discovers that the local water supply is polluted and chronically toxic, he rightly considers the health of his fellow residents as well as those who flock to the spa each year, and wants the water cleaned-up. At first, Stockmann is supported by the editor of the local radical newspaper – Hovstad (played by Bryan Dick) - and the leader of the local small business association. But Stockmann's brother, Peter, is the mayor of the town, and he has no intention of closing down the lucrative trade which is the basis of the town's economic success, nor of forking-out the huge sum of 800 million to sort-out the poisonous contamination. Using his political skills and powers of persuasion, Peter removes the doctor's support and the town eventually turns against Thomas.

The first thing that stands out about this production of Ibsen's political drama is the simple logo which adorns every seat in the auditorium as well as the cloth which hangs in front of the stage before the play starts. In bold, simple colours, the logo shows a stylised but idyllic scene of mountains and clear blue water. In effect, this is the brand of the spa town. It is even embodied in the mayor's uniform as a symbol of the wealth and status of the locality. It is in this simple emblem that one finds the clue to understanding Richard Jones's appealing and engaging production. This is Ibsen's play stripped-back, pruned and condensed into clear, loud messages. At first, it has more than a tinge of melodrama about it, with the good doctor the hero and his brother cast as the insidious villain. But the endeavour really springs to life when Dr Stockmann plans to give a lecture to the townspeople. At this point the attention is turned on us, the audience, as we become the townies at the lecture and the action moves into the auditorium. Unless I was very much mistaken, the lights on the audience slowly brighten and intensify during Stockmann's tirade against the power of the majority, inducing an unsettling and uncomfortable feeling as we are, quite literally, put under the glaring spotlight.

Like the logo, Miriam Beuther's setting is simple, even if it is on a rather imposing scale. Most of the action takes place in the Stockmanns' home which is an enormous, intentionally garish chalet stretching across the entire stage and made from wood from floor to ceiling. Sparkling woodland and a river can be seen through the chalet's window, giving the impression of an advertisement for an almost cartoon-like location.

With a relatively short running time of a little over 90 minutes (without an interval), this version of Ibsen's work probably won't satisfy everyone – though that fits appropriately with Dr Stockmann's final views about the power of the majority. In the first half, everything is simplistic: black and white, right and wrong, and a choice between two clearly defined and opposing views. This simplicity is reflected in the style of acting and direction, culminating in an intense fight where the two brothers Peter and Thomas (powerfully portrayed by Darrell D'Silva and Nick Fletcher respectively) end-up rolling on the floor trying to throttle each other. In the second half of the play, simplicity is abandoned and everything becomes more intense and more complex as we are forced to consider not only the nature of political power but the concept of democracy itself. At a time when public interest and faith in politics is waning, Ibsen's play obviously still has considerable relevance, and Richard Jones's refreshing production certainly makes that impressively and unambiguously clear.



"Updating a classic can sometimes work brilliantly...But David Harrower's new 100-minute version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, directed by Richard Jones, is problematic as well as provocative: there's a nagging discrepancy between Ibsen's late 19th-century plot and point of view, and the 21st-century setting."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

"This politically charged piece from 1882 is presented in a fluent and sometimes pungently sardonic new version by David Harrower, under the title Public Enemy."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

"Such a compressed version of this play may lose the slow build-up and therefore a certain measure of dramatic tension but the political contradictions of censorship for the ‘public good’ (I nearly wrote ‘herd immunity’) are sharply drawn and thoroughly watchable."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail

"Gripping production...Watching this fresh and entertaining production, it is hard to believe that the play was written in 1882, so resonantly does it chime with today’s environmental concerns. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

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