German director Thomas Ostermeier is on an odyssey through Ibsen. “Roughly every two years [since 2002] I have directed an Ibsen play,” he states in the programme, and his production of An Enemy of the People demonstrates that in Ibsen he has found his perfect theatrical medium. Domestic, yet far-reaching, the production is relocated from grim nineteenth-century Norway to this very moment, and poses some of the uncomfortable questions that our society needs to face.
In the play, Dr Thomas Stockmann discovers that his town’s water, which supplies the town’s pride and joy, the Baths, is contaminated and dangerous. Stockmann is advised by his brother, who works for the council, to suppress this information, but Stockmann continues fighting to be heard, and is gradually abandoned by each of his supporters as they realise what the revelation would cost them personally.
In this production, Stockmann’s brother is a perfect personification of today’s wealthy, largely white, male, middle-aged, and be-suited establishment that protects its own interests by warning us to accept the status quo because it’s ‘useless to fight it’. Just as dangerous, however, are middle-class moderates like the editor of the local paper, whose vested interests prevent him from allowing the truth to be reported. And here is where the production points an uncomfortable finger: not at the tax-dodging CEOs and cutthroat oligarchs, but at the normal, well-intentioned citizen who may feel that society needs to change, but will not step out of his or her comfortable existence in order to effect it. Here, the famous words echo: “All it takes for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”
At the climax of the play, when Stockmann is given the floor to speak to the people of the town, Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation extrapolates the message of the play right out to its furthest and most relevant extent. From speaking about the corruption in the town’s civic structures, Stockmann segues into a radical diatribe, claiming that we today are encouraged to divide ourselves from one another in order to prevent real community, and also so that we can be turned into nothing but “registered bodies” to be packaged and sold to. He laments the sad idolatry of the family nucleus and claims, “The economy is not in crisis, the economy IS the crisis”.
Then, in an exciting and bold theatrical move, the house lights go up and this revolutionary speech is offered up to the audience for a response. A chaotic and slightly incoherent, but lively and exciting semi-debate follows, as members of the audience pipe up with their own opinions on the state of society, to be applauded or refuted by the rest. Eventually Stockmann takes the floor again, and is literally paintballed into submission by his opponents.
The intense modernity of the production is brilliantly supported by the music and design. Jan Pappelbaum and Katharina Ziemke’s chalked wall drawings are somewhere between design blueprints and Shoreditch street graffiti, while the action is often interrupted by Malte Beckenbach and Daniel Freitag’s retro indie dabblings, including a brilliant impromptu beatbox session. Music cannot help but invade this production, bringing with it an injection of life, fun, and often humour.
At two and a half hours without an interval, this German-language production (surtitled) of a classic piece of Norwegian noir seems daunting. But the action simply flies, with wonderfully energetic performances and lots of inventive stage business.
Despite the revolutionary spirit of the show, there didn’t seem to be any danger of an immediate riot in the streets as the Barbican audience seeped comfortably out after a standing ovation and several curtain calls; but the dissatisfaction voiced during the audience’s moment in the spotlight suggests this production has captured something of the zeitgeist. Perhaps more theatre like this can finally help to galvanise the ‘liberal majority’ into action.
An Enemy of the People played at the Barbican Theatre.