An Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
For his first production as associate artistic director at the Octagon since handing the reigns of the artistic directorship over to Elizabeth Newman, David Thacker is on familiar ground with Arthur Miller, in the play in which Miller gave up on writing plays heavily influenced by Ibsen and just rewrote Ibsen directly.
The play may not be one of Ibsen's most famous or revived works, but it was the basis of the film Jaws, with the bacteria in the water replaced by a rather larger waterborne threat. It also continues to be relevant, as we hear echoes in the play of the words that politicians still use when they are trying to convince us that they are acting in our interests rather than their own.
The Mayor declares "these are not ordinary times" to excuse limiting freedoms such as free speech and uses the term "decent, hardworking people" to mean those who agree with him. Sound familiar? Remember, this is a 1950 adaptation of a play originally written in 1882.
Dr Stockmann (Rob Edwards) was instrumental in setting up the town's new baths, soon to open and bring prosperity to the town, but he has discovered that the waters contain deadly bacteria from the tanning factory up the mountain. However Stockmann's brother Peter (David Birrell), the town's Mayor, wants to keep this quiet to prevent the damage it would cause to the town's economy and the huge cost of putting it right.
But he is too late as the press is already on the good Doctor's side, with the keen revolutionary Hovstad (David Nabil Stuart), the town newspaper's editor, eager to publish his report, with the consent of publisher Aslaksen (John McArdle), despite his constant pleas for "moderation". That is until the Mayor mentions the extra tax that will be needed to prop up the private company (as if taxpayers' money would ever be used to make sure private shareholders would not lose money...).
As Peter gradually turns the whole town against his brother, converting him from a hero into an enemy of the people, it's the sort of play that makes you want to shout out at the injustice of it all.
The first half of Thacker's production is fine but just a little bland, only really taking off when the two brothers come together—excellent performances as ever from the incomparable Edwards and Birrell.
The second half begins with the public meeting called by the Doctor to broadcast his message as all other avenues have been closed off to him. The now-ubiquitous "community chorus", here acting students from ALRA, is used to excellent effect, dotted throughout the audience to shout the speaker down. The moment when the Captain (Marc Small) helps the Doctor and his family, including two small boys, to escape through the hostile crowd is genuinely scary.
That sense of fear and tension is maintained through the last scene, as well as a rising sense of injustice as everything is taken away from our hero as he is not prepared to back down.
James Cotterill's set design is mostly realistic other than the symbolic misted windows hanging high over the in-the-round stage, which sway towards the end to the sound of breaking glass.
By the end, I could feel that my whole body had tensed up from the way the play and the production had built up to the final climax. It isn't a happy ending, but it is an effective one in a production that is powerful, sadly still relevant and definitely worth seeing.