Theatre Review by Nick Keith
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
Chichester Festival Theatre
Only Shakespeare is reckoned to have had more of his plays staged than Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright revolutionized his craft in the late 19th century and ‘An Enemy of the People’ in 1882 followed in the footsteps of ‘A Dolls House’ and ‘Ghosts’. It was written partly in response to critics of those two controversial works, where independent women were battling against their patriarchal world. All three plays feature strong women remaining resilient while a madhouse of masculine egotism reverberates around them.
In ‘An Enemy of the People’ Dr Tomas Stockmann (excellently played by Hugh Bonneville) is the central character in a tale about the environment, political patriarchy, whistle-blowing, family tensions, betrayal, manipulation, naivety and hubris. As medical officer of a town where his brother Peter (William Gaminara) is mayor, Dr Stockmann reckons there is contaminated water in the public baths – which, it is hoped, will boost the local economy by promoting the town as a health spa.
A letter to the doctor confirms that scientific tests reveal bacteria in the water. He is determined to reveal the findings, and wins support from the local newspaper, which agrees to print an article, and from the leader of the trades people.
However, his stodgy brother Peter warns Tomas that the town’s prospects cannot be endangered by this research. The brothers argue vehemently about hiding and telling the truth. Peter reminds his brother that he has got him the job as medical officer when he was struggling for work, that repairs would be extremely expensive, and that, if the baths had to close, the town would lose business to other ambitious spa towns.
Tomas goes ahead, convinced that he will become a popular hero for telling the truth. Things start to go wrong for him when Peter achieves a volte face by Hovstad (Adam James), editor of the Peoples Messenger, and Aslaksen (Jonathan Cullen), trades leader and publisher/printer of the newspaper. They are persuaded that the doctor’s claims may be exaggerated and revelation of rumours will tarnish the jewel of the town’s future.
Now Tomas abandons the safer ground of scientific evidence and decides to publicise his privately held view that the town’s government is corrupt as well as deceitful. In a well-staged public meeting, the aisles of the theatre are filled with vociferous and angry townspeople. Aslaksen is chosen as the chair and he and mayor do their best to sabotage the doctor. When Tomas at last speaks he has lost sight of the important scientific truths. He lays into the council and the press, and even attacks the townsfolk, his potential supporters, for their ignorance, lack of intelligence and gullibility. This is a reminder of the potential tyranny of the masses and how manipulative political guile can pervert democracy (is Donald Trump watching?).
The meeting turns angrily against the doctor, and he and his family are hounded out, and go back home. Next day, the windows of their ransacked rented house are shattered, Tomas is sacked as medical officer by his brother, and he and his family are ostracized and face being thrown out of their home.
Throughout all this, his wife Katherine has asked sensible, practical questions but remained supportive, as does their feisty daughter Petra (Alice Orr-Ewing), despite the obvious threats to them all and the two young sons. Naivety, blindness and ego keep her husband’s head up in the clouds to the very end, when he and his home town are left facing an uncertain future.
Christopher Hampton, whose Chekhov trilogy from last year’s Festival is now at the National Theatre, produced this version of the play some 20 years ago. Two interesting articles in the programme draw attention to the hazards of whistle-blowing (David Shayler, Edward Snowden and others); and Ibsen’s work has contributed to the repertory system and a new “political theatre” in Britain in the early 20th century, when his plays were championed by George Bernard Shaw and staged at London’s Royal Court.
This is a thought-provoking and contentious work, which seems both old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, with the frailties of men in stark contrast to the sense and steadfastness of the women. The acting, direction by Howard Davies, and set design by Tim Hatley all ring true. You can see it at Chichester Festival Theatre until 21 May.