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An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen in a version by Christopher Hampton
Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Chichester

Hugh Bonneville as Dr Stockmann Credit: Manuel Harlan
Abigail Cruttenden as Mrs Stockmann and Hugh Bonneville Credit: Manuel Harlan
Alice Orr-Ewing as Daughter Petra and Hugh Bonneville as Doctor Stockmann Credit: Manuel Harlan

What really frightens me about this play is the way a crowd can be so easily influenced by fear of change and of what might happen next. With the European referendum coming up soon—does anything here sound familiar?

Ibsen’s story, which could so easily apply to the present day, concerns a Dr Stockmann who has spent many months investigating the true state of the local baths, the main draw for tourists to the town. They are advertised as promoting health and vitality, but now the doctor has discovered they are awash with bacteria and a serious danger to health. Most of the contamination comes from the mill owned by his wife’s wealthy stepfather Morten Kiil (played with a gruff Northernness by Trevor Cooper). This man is not going to accept any suggestion that he could be responsible.

Expecting to be awarded and feted for this important discovery, Hugh Bonneville’s Stockman beams with pleasure and satisfaction, but not only will the cost of renovation be prohibitive but the baths will have to be closed for some time while the work is done and the town will lose tourist money and prestige. His brother, the mayor, plans to keep quiet about the danger and keep the baths open and, at a very well staged meeting, gives his version of the ‘facts’ to the populace, inciting them to regard the doctor as ‘an enemy of the people’.

William Gaminara is vindictive and self-righteous as the mayor who has all the power, but Stockman sticks to his guns: “I’m the one who's right!”.

So far, we’re with him all the way, this true man of unshakeable integrity determined to do the right thing. His friends in the newspaper office are with him too, particularly Billing (Michael Fox) who, with boyish excitement and relish, is anticipating a revolution. Editor Hovstad (Adam James) is enthusiastically ready to publish and expose the hypocrisy of those is power, and even printer Aslaksen (Jonathan Cullen) is in agreement—but "with moderation".

Everything changes, though, when they discover their jobs will be at risk and that they might have to pay higher taxes to cover the cost of the renovation. The facts will be put before the people and the majority will decide—this is the democratic way—but even if the true facts were revealed, the majority are all too easily manipulated, this well demonstrated by impressive staging of a meeting addressing the citizens.

Best known for his appearances as the Earl of Grantham in the long-running TV drama Downton Abbey, Bonneville is back on the stage after many years and slips easily into the role of Stockman. From pleasure and achievement to frustration and depression he has each mood well within his grasp, even parodying his brother for his suggested femininity, and bravely standing alone, still firm in his beliefs whatever the cost.

Strong support from Abigail Cruttenden as his wife trying to remind him of practicalities and the effect his stubbornness will have on her and the children, and the first flutterings of feminism are in the air with daughter Petra (Alice Orr-Ewing) independent and smart.

The whole is played out on Tim Hatley’s impressive set of indeterminate period, and Howard Davies keeps the tension high in this powerful production, with little touches of comedy to lighten the atmosphere. Engaging and gripping all the way.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor