Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 4 April, 2008

Other of Ibsen’s plays offer more penetrating portrayals of the damage that oppressive social expectations can wreak on individuals, but An Enemy Of The People focuses on Dr Thomas Stockmann and his family less as subjects in themselves than as a case study of the effects of public corruption and hypocrisy on its citizens. As long as media channels and politicians get into bed together, as long as factors of cost and image can override matters of truth and public well-being, as long as private corporate liabilities are foisted on to the public purse, this will continue to be a contemporary work. Yet Ibsen is never that simple: when Stockmann’s idealism is shattered by his community’s refusal to accept that their public spa baths must be re-piped to remove toxins from the water supply, he proceeds to fulminate against the stultifying tyranny of consensus and liberal majoritarianism. It is salutary to see this production so soon after David Edgar’s latest interrogation of liberalism, Testing The Echo.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version is swift (getting through all four acts in barely two hours) and vigorous in its expression, and Mehmet Ergen’s staging is sensitive to its dynamics (although, oddly, less so to the sightlines of the venue of which Ergen has been artistic director since its foundation in 2001). As Stockmann, Greg Hicks brings his usual assiduous physical and emotional commitment to the character. Unusually, this most forensic of actors sometimes seems to be playing the emotions rather than the lines during the opening acts. But when Stockmann addresses a public meeting in Act Three and has to deal with the ruin of his and his family’s lives thereafter, Hicks takes flight. The combination of innocent idealism and resentment at being spurned echoes Coriolanus, and it is clear that Stockmann is a heroic figure only part of the way, before becoming the creature of his mania. Christopher Godwin finds a quiet relish in Stockmann’s brother the sanctimonious, self-regarding mayor, and Jim Bywater almost becomes a personification of civic timidity in his insistence on moderation and decorum. Sean Campion is an asset to any cast, although he has less to do here as the doctor’s single unwavering supporter in the town. A cast of 18 feels huge for the Arcola’s space, and convincingly generates a sense that this is an entire community acting in deplorable concert.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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