An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer
David Binder Productions and Wessex Grove
Duke of York's Theatre, London

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Zachary Hart (Billing), Jessica Brown Findlay (Katharina Stockmann), Matt Smith (Dr Stockmann) and Shubham Saraf (Hovstad) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Matt Smith (Dr Stockmann) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Paul Hilton (Peter Stockmann) Credit: Manuel Harlan

There is a familiar pattern to public scandals involving some business activity threatening our health. Think perhaps of Grenfell or even climate change. Kick the can down the road till some disaster requires action. If the outrage at the disaster is sufficiently large, hold an inquiry long enough for everyone to forget the disaster happened, and if people refuse to forget the issue, scare them off with the news that it will cost all of us a phenomenal sum to remedy the problem or pay compensation.

That’s the scenario of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of a small town spa, finds evidence that the spa water is contaminated with bacteria. A liberal newspaper is initially keen to print the news until they are told by Stockmann’s brother Peter, the chair of the Board of the baths and Mayor of the town, that it would cause the baths to be closed for years and the price of solving the problem would cost everyone vast amounts of money.

Given a contemporary setting, the adaptation by Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer generally follows the original Ibsen, only deviating significantly in the second half.

Matt Smith, as Thomas Stockman, arrives at his bohemian home where friends hang out, and graffiti scrawled across the walls include the words, “if you run into the Buddha on the street, kill him.” Being part of a musical band, Thomas and his wife Katharina (Jessica Brown Findlay) join their friends, the newspaper editor Hovstad (Shubham Saraf) and the journalist Billing (Zachary Hart), in singing the Bowie song "Changes".

Katharina is also busy trying to work on a translation for the newspaper, look after their young baby and prepare herself for her teaching job. A bit of a radical, she claims school is about conformity and pretending “the country is a meritocracy.” Everything seems relaxed with touches of humour till the subject of the spa comes up, and they are visited by Peter (Paul Hilton), who wants to keep a lid on any bad news about the spa.

When Thomas feels blocked from reporting the news in the media, he decides to hold a town hall meeting, at which the theatre house lights are turned on. After his five-minute impassioned speech in which he argues that “the greatest enemy of truth is the liberal majority”, the audience is invited to contribute on portable microphones.

Thomas claims, “our society is polluted with corruption… Where we turn a blind eye to extinction” and “there is no cost of living crisis… there is an inequality crisis.”

He insists “there are no moral billionaires” when we can't afford “to pay care workers.”

The town hall meeting adds nothing to the play but is interesting enough to engage the audience. Other things, like Katharina suddenly romantically kissing someone and the play fight between the Stockmann brothers, seem to have no purpose.

A fine, fluent cast, in particular Matt Smith, give a fast-moving, believable performance of a script whose humour assists the pacing without detracting too much from the seriousness of the issues. However, the sudden, ambiguous ending seems cynically designed to get a laugh rather than follow the more rebellious Ibsen text.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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