“All our spiritual springs are poisoned and the whole of our society rests on the plague-infected soil of lies!” Having recently returned to his hometown following a period of financial hardship, Doctor Tomas Stockmann (Hugh Bonneville) makes a devastating discovery about the town’s local spa. Its supposedly ameliorating waters are in fact a serious health hazard, actively poisoning any and all who bathe in them. Evidently, the baths cannot continue to operate, but the spa has become such a crucial part of the local economy that to close it would decimate the town. As Stockmann, Bonneville must negotiate between his desire to do what is right and the dilapidating effect this could have on the livelihoods of his fellow townspeople.
The actor, best known for his portrayal of Lord Grantham in the enormously successful Downton Abbey, cut an imperious presence. Flawless throughout, Bonneville looks every inch the leading man as he moves through a highly demanding play script with an ease that more than justifies his return to the stage. Many of the supporting cast also put in strong performances. Abigail Cruttendam and William Gaminara impress as Mrs Stockmann and Peter Stockmann respectively, while Jonathan Cullen does a first rate job of breathing life into the character of Aslaken, his unwavering insistence on “moderation, moderation” earning a wry chuckle at every outing.
But perhaps the most impressive performance of the evening came in the form of An Enemy of the People’s set designers and technical team. In some of the Festival Theatre’s previous productions the sets have tended to be quite minimalist and it was refreshing to see the company finally giving full rein to their design team’s artistic talents. The result is a breathtakingly intricate reproduction of a Victorian home, print shop and town hall, complete with all the condiments and trimmings. Extensive prop use was also a success, intensive while never threatening to lapse into excessiveness, and the use of an authentic 30’s shutter-flash camera was an inspired touch. As an audience member I felt fully transported back to a time where to wear one’s hair in a bob was considered daring and the pineapple an exotic delicacy.
It would be doing Christopher Hampton’s adaptation a disservice however, to reduce all that is contained within the play’s content to one specific period in history: Enemy’s costumes and set design may be firmly rooted in the 20th century but the issues it interrogates are not. Many of the problems An Enemy of the People grapples with – the individual vs the majority, pollution of the environment and so on – are sadly just as relevant today as they were during its context of production, and it is clear that director Howard Davies and his crew have worked hard to try and foreground this contemporary resonance. The director’s decision to pepper his community company amongst real audience members in Act 4, for example, was an effective one – it worked well to blur the line between the stage and the seats, drawing the audience in whilst simultaneously bringing Ibsen’s social commentary out.
An Enemy of the People is on until 21st May 2016. Click here for more details.