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An Enemy of the People (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: An Enemy of the People

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre. St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4BG

Credits: By Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier

An Enemy of the People

3 stars

The word “reimagined” is overworked in theatre circles but this really is a pretty radical shakeup of Ibsen’s 1882 play about a doctor who blows the whistle on the local, lucrative spa baths when he discovers the water is dangerously contaminated. It’s a conflict between morality and economics and we’re very familiar with that.  Even in the original, it’s Ibsen at his most prescient and, adapted by director Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer the play becomes exceptionally hard hitting.

Matt Smith is a younger Doctor Thomas Stockman than usual. Ibsen envisaged him as old enough to have two children with speaking parts – Hugh Bonneville (who was in the audience on press night) played him as middle aged at Chichester in 2016 and Ian McKellen made him quite crusty at the National in 1997. Smith’s version is a good looking, confident young father of a new baby with youthful vigour and love of truth and it’s pretty perfect casting. The contrast with his uncharismatic older brother who’s mayor of the town (Paul Hinton) and wants it all pragmatically hushed up, works well.

In the second half there’s a public meeting in which Ostermeier moves right away from the play as beleaguered Stockman takes the microphone and rants at length about the 2024 world crisis – it’s a masterly performance complete with long Sir Humphrey-like sentences and a Rossini-esque accelerating crescendo except that there is nothing funny or frothy about it. The message is deadly serious and leads to audience comments and questions – most of them “plants”, I strongly suspect, on press night.

Jessica Brown Findlay is totally natural and plausible as Stockman’s very reasonable wife, Katharina. And there’s a fine performance from Nigel Lindsay as her gruff, self-interested father. Lindsay is exceptionally good at unattractive characters: he usually turns out to be the villain in TV dramas. Here is is flanked by an equally disdainful German Shepherd dog, ably played by Leyla. Pryanga Burford is excellent as the calm newspaper proprietor too especially when she’s managing the audience and may have to ad lib.

And yet. It opens with Brown Findlay hosting band practice at home (Ibsen had that scene as a meal). The music adds little except that it provides a coherent reason for using it to cover later scene changes. It’s also rather fun – although totally irrelevant –  to hear Matt Smith sing and to note that Zachary Hart is rather good on the guitar.

First staged in Berlin in 2012, it’s a messy show. Set flats (designed by Jan Pappelbaum)  are black with white chalking, occasionally amended by cast members. Then they obliterate it all with buckets of white paint, the point of which eluded me. And that’s before you get to the paint hurled at Smith by hecklers. By chance I sat next to one of the production carpenters who told me that he has three hours’ work immediately after the show, cleaning off the paint and restoring the set to rights for the next performance. Ever wondered why West End seats get ever more expensive?

I was, moreover, not impressed by the cynical, ambiguous ending. Stockman has lost everything – job, home and his wife has been sacked from her teaching job. Will he now give in? Surely not. His moral stance is the whole thrust of the play.


First published by Sardines :

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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