After a much needed afternoon nap, Mrs Chrisparkle, Professor and Mrs Plum and I wandered back to the Festival theatre for our evening main event. Of course I had heard of An Enemy of the People, but I had never seen it before. Nor had I read it. I have three volumes of Ibsen from my teenage years and it doesn’t appear in any of them. In fact, I’ve only seen Ibsen three times – each one a Hedda Gabler. That doesn’t say much for the variety of contemporary approach to Ibsen, does it?
Rather like Barker’s Waste that we saw last Christmas, An Enemy of the People is still enormously relevant to today’s audience even though it was written way back in 1882. In a little Norwegian spa town, whose wealth comes almost exclusively from tourists flocking to take the waters at the town’s baths, local doctor Tomas Stockmann has discovered that the water there is in fact riddled with bacteria and could do terrible damage to anyone in contact with it. The only safe solution is to close the baths down and have the water source safely reconstructed. The Mayor, an arrogant, pompous man who happens to be Dr Stockmann’s brother, and who pours scorn on his attitudes and activities whenever the opportunity arises, demands that the doctor withdraw his report because the cost of repairing the baths would be extortionate. Will the townspeople agree with the doctor that health and safety must come first, or with the Mayor that their taxes should be protected? Aye, there’s the rub. Although it starts with issues of how to deal with whistle-blowers, and the rights and wrongs of public funding, the argument moves on to discuss themes of intellectual superiority, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. It’s a very meaty, satisfying play, which really gets you involved, challenging one’s own sense of justice, and making oneself ask the question, what would you do in Stockmann’s shoes? I make no bones about it, I found the play absolutely riveting.
It’s a perfect production for the Festival stage, with Tim Hatley’s gloomy but not austere set creating a very believable, moderately grand house for Dr Stockmann, with an ever-stocked dining room and homely soft furnishings; which transforms superbly to the offices of the local newspaper and even more so to the house after it has undergone some changes at the end. Howard Davies’ direction is clear and pacey, and by the interval I was buzzing with excitement to see how the situation would resolve itself. The remarkable fourth act (being Ibsen it’s a five act play) where Stockmann speaks at a public meeting had me literally open-mouthed in awe. Cast members filled the auditorium, lining up the steps, shouting back to the stage, whilst others sat in seats in front of the audience, themselves watching what was happening on stage. I thought it was astounding. I ended up shouting at the stage too, even though Mrs C had to remind me it wasn’t actually a pantomime. I was jealous of people sat at the end of the row, because they were handed copies of the Mayor’s wicked statement and I just wanted to shove it back in their face saying it was rubbish. On reflection, maybe it was just as well I wasn’t sat there. After the high drama of the fourth act, when the final set emerged reflecting the sadness and defeat of Tomas and his household, I actually let out an involuntary cry of sympathy. That’s how much the stagecraft of the whole production took me along with it, making me acutely sensitive to the Stockmanns’ plight. Even before considering the performances, the combination of play and production had me on the edge of my seat. I absolutely loved it.
From a popular culture point of view, they’ve rolled out the big guns in the form of Hugh Bonneville in the part of Dr. Stockmann. Apparently this is Mr Bonneville’s first stage role in twelve years, and no doubt a sizeable number of the audiences will be there to see Lord Grantham in the flesh. (They may recognise another member of the Downton cast as well – under-sub-minor-footman Andy, played by Michael Fox.) I’d certainly never seen Mr B on stage before, and I was most impressed. He’s certainly one of those actors who looks and feels so comfortable on the stage, who is technically so reliable, and whom you look forward to their next entrance. I really enjoyed the way he captured all of the good doctor’s different aspects: the integrity, the family man, the self-appointed hero, the smugness, the misplaced vanity, the devastation. It was all there.
He is matched in snide villainy by William Gaminara playing his brother Peter, the mayor. We saw Mr Gaminara in the extraordinary The Body of an American in Northampton a couple of years ago and he is a very fine actor. His totally credible characterisation of the measly mayor, thin in spirit and generosity, was really striking, and I spent most of the play wanting to throw things at him, he annoyed me so much. There’s a really strong supporting performance from Abigail Cruttenden as Tomas’ wife, wrestling with the opposing desire and obligation to support her husband but also to make him see sense and not cut off the entire family’s security. Adam James plays newspaper editor Hovstad as keen as mustard to screw the mayor once and for all, with Michael Fox as his supporting sidekick vindictively adding his “bloody right”s, only for them to turn cowardly when it comes to the crunch – which was dramatically highly effective. For me the best supporting performance of the night was from Jonathan Cullen – whom I remember as a magnificent student actor when we were at Oxford – as the wheedling Aslaksen, who turns coat at the whiff of an extra penny in the tax and becomes a paragon of parsimony. Finally, hats off also to young actors Alfie Scott and Jack Taylor, as Dr Stockmann’s sons Ejlif and Morten, who stayed completely in character throughout, and whose appalled reactions, from sitting out in the audience and looking back at the stage when their father was being roundly abused by the town, were genuinely agonising to watch.
I appreciate that if I had seen other productions of this play before – McKellen at the National has been brought to my attention – I might not have been quite so blown away by this one. But I hadn’t. And I was. It’s on until 21st May, and I would urge you to see it at once!