First performed in 1882, An Enemy of the People is one of Ibsen’s social-realist dramas in which he attacked ‘the rotten state’ of his native Norway. Writing it as a response to the public outcry against his previous play Ghosts, which was deemed scandalous and obscene, Ibsen here once again lays into the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness not only of the authorities but of the local people.
Set in a coastal spa town, An Enemy of the People revolves around the discovery by the public health officer Dr Thomas Stockmann that the water in the local baths has been polluted by a nearby tannery. To start with, apart from his brother Peter, the Mayor, the townspeople seem very grateful to him for making this discovery, especially those who have cause to dislike the municipal authorities: Morten Kiil, the rich foster-father of Dr Stockmann’s wife Catherine; Hovstad, the radical campaigning editor of The People’s Messenger; and Aslasken, the printer and property owners’ representative.
However, after the Mayor claims the complete overhaul of the water-supply system as demanded by his brother will necessitate the closure of the baths for two years, thus destroying the town’s tourist trade, Dr Stockmann’s supporters fall away as they feel their livelihoods are threatened. They try to suppress the full horrible truth coming out in favour of minor maintenance, putting intense pressure on the whistle-blowing doctor, who comes to believe that it is not just the water but society itself which is poisoned as he is branded ‘an enemy of the people’.
The play which incidentally inspired the Peter Benchley novel that was in turn the source for Steven Spielberg film Jaws – seems astonishingly contemporary in its depiction of small-town repression. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version (from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund) may contain the occasional sloppy anachronism, but provides a lean and lively text which is delivered strongly by an excellent cast in Mehmet Ergen’s powerful production.
This play is a fine example of Ibsen’s greatness as a playwright, showing his ability to dramatize big issues and portray individual characters with extraordinary complexity and subtlety. Dr Stockmann is not presented simply as a heroic figure single-handedly fighting for the truth against the odds, sharing some of Ibsen’s own messianic fervour though that is how he sees himself. He is a much more ambivalent figure, idealistic and courageous yes, but also betraying increasing signs of megalomania, especially in the rousing public-meeting scene where he refers to himself as a ‘genius’ and reveals a Nietzschean contempt for the masses.
Greg Hicks gives a superbly physical performance as Dr Stockmann, giving him the pent-up energy of a coiled spring. While never losing our sympathy, this uncompromising actor does not flinch from showing us how the doctor’s concern for public welfare gives way to arrogant paranoia, as he declares, ‘The strongest man. He’s always alone.’
His sibling rivalry with Peter also comes across forcibly, with Christopher Godwin’s understated performance as a gaunt, quietly sinister Mayor the perfect complement. Daniel Rabin makes a personable but unprincipled Hovstad, Jim Bywater is an amusingly pompous and timid Aslasken preaching ‘moderation and restraint’ and Robin Browne is the eccentric but cunning Morten Kiil. Alison McKenna shows how Catherine is loyal to her husband but concerned more for the well-being of their young family than the town, while their daughter Petra blazes with some of the fieriness of the doctor in Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s spirited portrayal.
It will be fascinating to see how the Arcola Theatre deal with Ibsen’s late symbolist drama The Lady from the Sea in their next production if it’s anything like as good as this one, it will be well worth seeing.
Read the musicOMH review of The Lady From The Sea at the Arcola.