If the title of Ibsen’s play, more commonly known as An Enemy of the People, has had the red pen taken to it, then a version that comes in at just 100 minutes suggests a considerable amount of trimming elsewhere. No matter; David Harrower’s brilliant new adaptation is lucid and colloquial (Ibsen characters don’t often yell “squeeze their balls” again and again) and yet retains the essence of the play perfectly.
Ibsen said he wasn’t sure whether to call it a comedy or a straight drama but director Richard Jones leaves us in no doubt as to what he thinks. The late Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston went so far as to describe it as a satyr play following three classical Athenian tragedies (the rest of the tetralogy being made up by The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House and Ghosts) and Jones has no difficulty running riot with it.
Thomas Stockmann is certainly a comic figure. He’s undoubtedly in the right in combatting the moral and bacterial pollution that threatens the local population through the public baths but, in the tradition of the playwright’s flawed heroes, comes out as a vainglorious, pompous ass, too ready to spray his scattergun derision at anyone he sees as less noble than himself. Jones’s production borders on the farcical, with dives behind cupboards, double takes and sibling rivalry bursting into cartoon violence, as the Stockmann brothers roll around the floor and swat each other with posters torn from the walls. One could almost believe a movement director was brought in to choreograph it all and a balletic scene change that transforms the Stockmann’s home into the newspaper office is milked for all it’s worth.
One might think Harrower is playing for cheap laughs and shoehorning contemporary relevance into the Act Four lecture scene, where we, a polite and unresponding audience are harangued by Stockmann with “Has anyone here one good word to say about politicians? Anyone? Show of hands?” But no, it’s all there, inherent in the character’s diatribe and it’s the yearningly topical nature of the play that has seen it reinvented time and again (let’s face it, it only took the addition of a monster shark to turn it into one of the blockbuster movies of the 70s).
You’re unlikely to have seen any Ibsen play as served up by Jones. If he wanted to blow the cobwebs away and prise the playwright away from a traditional dreariness that has hounded him since he wrote the play in 1882, he certainly succeeds. Thank goodness that treatments like this, and Benedict Andrews’s recent Three Sisters at the Young Vic, are now successfully finding new ways of presenting the classics. No dingy late 19 Century Norwegian gloom here; Miriam Buether’s stripped pine wall sauna room is blasted with light. You’re left feeling as though you’ve leapt naked from the steam room, rolled in snow and whipped yourself with nettles. Fresh indeed.
The casting is faultless. Nick Fletcher is brilliant as Stockmann the doctor, a sincere longing to do right for his beloved town turning to a manic defiance against the evils of hypocrisy and self-interest which soon looks like complete madness. He delivers his lecture in the style of a stand-up comic (and is very funny at it) before descending into the cranky fervour of a TV evangelist, invading the audience, microphone in hand, to dispense his personal epiphany as gospel. It’s Brand on speed. Fletcher’s bearded, scraggle-haired Stockmann bears an eerie resemblance to Charles Manson, another individualist crackpot who went off to create his own ideal society with horrifying consequences. Whether that’s intentional or not, it carries a warning that following your own path in life has its dangers.
Darrell D’Silva is equally good as his brother, Stockmann the mayor, who is driven as much by a rich seam of boyhood jealousy as financial and political greed, and their sparring is a joy to watch. The rest of the cast make vivid contributions to a world balanced between grotesquerie and the naturalism more normally associated with Ibsen, although their motivations are sometimes curtailed by Harrower’s editing.
Stockmann’s final repeated “I am the strongest man in the world” may hammer the message home a bit too heavily, and in lesser hands Jones’s maverick approach could all have gone horribly wrong, but his wayward brilliance ensures that great drama stimulates and above all entertains.