An Enemy of the People @ Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

cast list
Antony Sher, Roger Bingham, Alex Blake, Chris Brailsford, Lucy Cohu, Susannah Fielding, Trystan Gravelle, Phillip Joseph, Charles McCurdy, Daniel Poyser, Brodie Ross, John Shrapnel, Chook Sibtain

directed by
Daniel Evans
It’s been a long, bleak couple of years for Sheffield theatregoers. Although the Lyceum has continued the tradition of excellent productions, that jewel in South Yorkshire’s crown, The Crucible Theatre, has been undergoing a two year, 15m refurbishment.

Immediate impressions are that it’s been worth the wait.

As well as a stunning new look (the old red facade being replaced by a vibrant white), there’s a new artistic director in Daniel Evans and an exciting programme of events for the year ahead, including John Simm in Hamlet.
The Crucible’s opening production for this new era is somewhat of a coup – Sir Antony Sher tackling his first Ibsen play. The Norwegian playwright has always had a reputation as a severe, rather gloomy, writer (one reason why Sher has avoided him for so long, he admitted in a recent interview) but Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of An Enemy Of The People provided several laugh out loud moments.

Sher plays Dr Stockmann, a man who has recently returned to his hometown to discover that the water used in the local baths is contaminated. Expecting to be treated as a hero, he campaigns to have the baths closed down and cleaned up, only to find the townsfolk turning against him when it is discovered how much this would cost.

With its themes of mob rule and media brainwashing, it’s easy to draw modern parallels with Ibsen’s play. Although the climate change debate and the recent financial crisis are mentioned in Roy Hattersley’s programme notes, it can be compared to any situation where one person takes up an unpopular view against the common view of the majority.

As Stockmann, Sher is nothing short of magnificent. Short and stocky, he buzzes all over the stage with frantic energy, almost childlike in his naivaity. He also does a masterful job in the play’s second half, where Stockmann’s conviction becomes ever more rabid, as we see the descent of the doctor into madness after a vigilante campaign is declared by the locals.

In Hampton’s adaptation, Stockmann is not an easy character to play. In the pivotal fourth act, his snobbery and disdain for the working classes is let loose, culminating in the cry that “the minority is always right”. Yet Sher plays Stockmann with such an avuncular presence, relishing lines like “you should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth” that the character becomes impossible to dislike.

Although this is Sher’s show, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent as well. Lucy Cohu, despite being about 20 years too young for her part, does a good job with the role of Stockmann’s increasingly frustrated wife, while Philip Joseph provides much of the comic relief as Aslaksen, the printer who believes rather too strongly in moderation and temperance. Best of all though is John Shrapnel as Stockmann’s brother and nemesis, who imbues his performance as Mayor with real presence.

Daniel Evans also does a wonderful job with his direction, handling a wildly ambitious crowd scene (featuring over 30 Sheffield locals) with aplomb, and making good use of Ben Stones’ sparse, subtle set design. At one point, shadows can be glimpsed in the background of the newspaper office, showing workers on the printing press – just one of many nice touches brought to the play.

Evans certainly has a hard act to follow, following in Samuel West’s footsteps as Artistic Director. Yet his first test has been passed with flying colours, and if his upcoming productions are staged with as much as verve and conviction, then there’s much for Sheffield to be excited about.

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