In Nottingham Playhouse’s An Enemy of the People , Dr Stockmann asserts that she has truth on her side. I think about that well-worn catchphrase of right-wing online commentators: facts don’t care about your feelings.
Of course, when the so-called sceptics of the internet say it, they’re claiming that the facts are objective, and the truth doesn’t change just because there’s something at stake for an individual or a community. But in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, the truth – that the water flowing through the baths of a spa town is poisoned – is secondary to how people feel about it.
Played by Alex Kingston, Dr Stockmann believes that her proven report about the baths will be welcomed, and that she will be praised for averting a catastrophe. But her brother, the mayor (Malcolm Sinclair), tells her instead that a complete overhaul of the water supply is impossible, that it will cripple the town’s economy, and that he believes it’s unnecessary anyway. When Stockmann stands by her report, the mayor paints her as a fantasist and a traitor, and turns the town against her.
As is usually the case when a canonically male lead is recast as a woman, I felt some anticipation around how the changes in gender would affect how the story lands. I’m not sure it’s all that noticeable except in the places where it jars. Stockmann’s husband is conspicuously underwritten, and whilst there’s an attempt to draw out tension around his position as a househusband, all that’s really lampshaded here is how little the original wife character impacts the story. The mayor calls Dr Stockmann a bitch, once, and I guess this does betray him as a misogynist, but it feels like a surface gesture and never comes across as a motivating factor in his destruction of his sister’s reputation and livelihood.
Which I want to say is fine, because this play is not, and does not have to be, about gender. Except that cross-gender casting is never neutral. And this production’s approach to it reminds me of Dr Nora J Williams’ recent paper about cross- and single-gender productions of Shakespeare. In it, she argues that swapping genders in classic plays without also making significant interventions in the structure is presenting an ‘incomplete dramaturgy’. There are some gestures being made here, but they come across as hollow.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that casting Alex Kingston in the lead is another big score for Nottingham Playhouse (following up on Mark Gatiss’ star turn in the 2018 revival of The Madness of George III), a theatre which seems ever more determined to challenge the perceived limitations of ‘regional’. Kingston’s Stockmann is authoritative, warm, naïve, pompous, and sympathetic; she resists a cut-and-dry characterisation as the rebellious tragic hero, while showing us how dearly the doctor would love to be perceived that way. And even Stockmann quickly loses sight of the literal poison flowing through the town – the issue itself becoming steadily less important than how she, and everyone around her, feels about it, and how each character can exploit it to get the best outcome for themselves.
And it’s easy enough to forget the toxic swamp when everything about this production is very, very clean. Adam Penford’s direction is precise and poised, and everything feels carefully positioned and controlled. Morgan Large’s design for the Stockmanns’ home is somewhere between an IKEA showroom and a dollhouse, and Tina MacHugh’s cool, crisp lighting bounces off the cast’s pristine raincoats and shiny boots. And even when mistruths and mistrust whip the townspeople into a riot, here comes the rain to wash everything away. There is no dirt in Skien, no filthy undercurrent here.
As the Stockmann family try to gather themselves in the final moments of the play – the two youngest daughters both injured and bloodied, the eldest daughter sacked, the father powerlessly packing their lives into boxes – Dr Stockmann’s insistence that she is strong and right comes across as impotent and meaningless. Facts don’t care about your feelings. But neither does anyone really care about the facts.
An Enemy of the People runs at Nottingham Playhouse until 28 September. More info here.