Public Enemy

Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by David Harrower

Young Vic

From 04 May 2013 to 08 June 2013

Review by Philip Fisher

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The Young Vic can do little wrong at the moment. Following the return of their award-winning revival of A Doll's House, they have invited the intermittently sensational team of David Harrower and Richard Jones to update another Ibsen classic, Enemy of the People to the 1970s under the modern title of Public Enemy.

On Miriam Buether's wide narrow set that perfectly captures the kitschy culture of that era, the story of a dedicated environmentalist fits the period as well as his unkempt black hair and beard but, arguably, the Norwegian conclusion of a century before makes less sense in a more liberal time.

The plot may be concentrated and simplified in an action-packed 90 minutes but the sentiments and morality are all there.

The opening scenes see the naive but happy local medic, Doctor Stockmann played with fierce intensity by Nick Fletcher becoming a local hero, beloved by all. This is the upshot of his principled stand against hypocrisy after discovering that the local spa has become "a poisonous cesspit".

It doesn't take long for political and economic reality to bite back in the form of Darrell D'Silva as his argumentative and often supercilious Mayoral brother.

Suddenly the editor of the local paper and the head of the small businessmen's association switch allegiances led by the basest of motives, soon proving that nobody likes a smart alec, not even the anti-establishment anarchists who have propelled him to the kind of pride that always comes before a fall.

The sorry reason is that while they do not deny that the waters are possibly fatally contaminated, the town faces financial ruin if word gets out that its sole attraction is toxic.

The centrepiece of the play is an impassioned speech about "the gang rape of democracy", during which Stockmann addresses the Young Vic audience to make a case for decency in a society where "our prosperity comes from filth".

At the same time he also identifies the risk that is implicit in letting the common man decide major issues (such as leaving Europe?), for which they do not have sufficient intellectual capacity.

By the end of the 90 minutes, the hero of the first quarter-hour is a pariah loved by none but his put-upon family, led by the stoical mother-daughter combination of Charlotte Randle as Katrine and making a highly promising stage debut, Beatrice Walker playing schoolteacher Petra, as idealistic as her father.

Despite some of the conflicting messages that he conveys, Doctor Stockmann comes across rather more sympathetically in this lively, powerfully written new version than is often the case, reflecting the changes that have taken place in society since Ibsen's day.

David Harrower's vision becomes apparent in a striking final scene that is clearly intended to liken the protagonist's final fate with the crucifixion of another controversial man who was proclaimed a saviour.

Public Enemy is both affecting at a personal level and politically explosive, with every chance of giving the Young Vic yet another popular hit.