I have never read Ibsen’s original text and after watching Jolley Gosnold’s new version of An Enemy of the People, I am glad. I am allowed to appreciate this retelling without a thought to the preservation of the nineteenth century text, a concern which would be unfounded as this play is deeply rooted in the issues of the here and now. Grenfell isn’t mentioned once in the play, but it is clear that this production is there to act as the mouthpiece for the voices of the surrounding community. With Grenfell Tower neighbouring the Playground Theatre, it would be hard to forget that this play’s message has a real, devastating poignancy.
Gosnold’s version of Ibsen’s classic centres around Dr. Gabriel Akuwudike and his discovery of contamination in the local baths. Although the creation of the baths were originally his brain child, they are now under the control of the local council, who’s MP happens to be his brother Olivier Huband. This brings about a confrontation between the political and the personal, with the characters facing the constant dilemma as to what the true definition of the greater good is.
Interestingly, the five characters share the names of their respective actors, a useful tool for blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality for us as an audience. Alongside Akuwudike and Huband, the ensemble is completed by Max Keeble, Hannah Van Der Westhuysen and Freddie Wise. Whether portraying the ultimate sibling rivalry or the silent subtext of an affair, the group’s chemistry is outstanding – they perform with the highest level of skill and elegance, even in the moments of chaos and destruction. The actors have a difficult job; for this piece to hit home with the audience, these characters have to emote real responses from us, forcing the audience to form opinions and take a side. This piece relies upon strong actors to carry the complexity of this piece and this group does not fail in rising to the challenge.
Alys Whitehead’s set design is perfect for keeping up with the pace of the play. She hasn’t created a space which is weighed down by excess detail often found in naturalistic sets; it mirrors the piece perfectly, starting off with a relaxed set up and a chaotic mess by the end. The set transforms as seamlessly as the actors within it, which is when a design can be brought to life as a new dimension for the audience.
This naturalistic play spills over into the territory of a social, protest piece – this play shouts the conspiracy theories about our democratic society that are more commonly whispered about. Having this piece at a venue in the heart of the community directly affected by the events it takes it lead from reinforces that this is a play to serve those people in their fight for justice. The audience are addressed on three separate occasions, but it is not just a device to shock or engage, it is there to ask the questions the play poses directly, giving the audience accountability for their actions and answers. This is a highly intelligent piece of theatre – it takes the traditional end-on style and uses it ironically, knowing that the questions it asks us cannot be answered as we sit there silently in our seats. It leaves the audience with no other choice than to reflect and, ultimately, to revolt.
An Enemy of the People is playing The Playground Theatre until 23 July. For more information and tickets, see the Playground Theatre website.