Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is both one of his most approachable and most challenging plays. The plot is universal: an individual attempts to force his community to face an uncomfortable truth and is pilloried by his neighbours. The play can be and indeed has been set in whichever country it is being performed. The challenge comes from the stand Ibsen’s protagonist takes and the precept Ibsen presents.
In 1882, Ibsen was still reeling from the commotion that had been caused by his two previous plays, A Doll’s House (1879) and Ghosts (1882), the latter especially. He expected the condemnation of the conservative factions but was surprised and angered by the lack of support from the more left-wing publications. Writing to his friend and acolyte Georg Brandes, he said: ‘What is one to say of the attitude taken by the so-called liberal press? These leaders who talk and write of freedom and progress, and at the same time allow themselves to be the slaves of the supposed opinion of their subscribers?’ This led him to a distrust of populism and, further – this is where the play becomes challenging – to a contempt for majority opinion. To the novelist Kristopher Janson, he writes: ‘What is the majority? The ignorant mass. Intelligence always belongs to the minority. How many of the majority do you think are entitled to hold any opinion?’ And to Brandes again: ‘I say: the minority is always right … I mean the minority which forges ahead in territory that the majority has not yet reached.’ As Ibsen’s protagonist, Dr Stockman, puts it in the closing moments of the original play: ‘The fact is, you see, that the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.’ With the concept of the uniquely talented individual battling hoi polloi, we are alarmingly close to Ayn Rand territory here.
Melissa Reeves’s adaptation is a fascinating but not entirely successful attempt to update the original. The play is set in a country town that has recently opened a spa on which it has placed all its hopes for economic revival. Here, Dr Stockman (in the original version a male medical officer) becomes a female wonderfully renamed ‘wellness officer’. She discovers that the water supplying the spa has been contaminated and attempts to alert the town, only to be blocked and vilified by both the right and left groups, including her brother, the mayor.
Reeves’s modern Australian setting works well. The first act, which, in the original, is set around a roast dinner, is now, of course, a barbie. The anxious, threatened, power-hungry mayor, the supposed firebrand but easily subverted journalists, the small business leader, and the powerful landowner are all recognisable figures who could be found in any Australian country town. The problem is that they remain stock, two-dimensional figures. Reeves has pruned the play back so much that we have no chance to see them as individuals. Here they are just a generic nasty bunch. Ibsen’s concept of the mayor, Peter Stockman, is an anxious, neurasthenic hypochondriac; here, Leon Ford plays him as one of a chorus of interchangeable blustering, bullying males. In the original, Ibsen subtly charts the transformation of the self-righteous, leftist journalists into mouthpieces for the powers that be. Reeves has them change sides instantaneously. Even the marvelous Peter Carroll cannot make much of the underwritten mill owner Morten Kill, and his big scene in the final act goes for little.
The women are developed in more depth and get more chance to shine. With the recent Kavanaugh hearings – which once again showed what can happen when a woman has the courage to raise her head above the parapets – making Dr Stockman a woman could hardly have had more relevance. Kate Mulvany’s Stockman is a hyperactive, naïve, vain whirlwind who is, at first, bewildered then outraged by the town’s response to her discovery. Director Anne-Louise Sarks has her play Stockman’s contentious speech in which she denigrates the majority as hyperbole brought on by the emotions of the moment. Mulvany’s Stockman is a woman who is painfully learning how power works and who, by the play’s end, has every intention of putting that knowledge to good use. Nikita Waldron makes Stockman’s daughter, Petra, an energetic intelligent young woman who, despite everything, has not lost her idealism.
Perhaps the play’s most interesting character is the one who is completely Reeves’s invention. In Ibsen’s original, the maid, Randine, is simply a cause for a running joke in which Stockman continually forgets her name. Here she is a single mother who left school early and takes cleaning jobs to survive. She is a prime example of the ‘majority’ that Ibsen, through his mouthpiece Stockman, condemns as worthless. In Catherine Davies’s hands, she becomes a still, reserved, detached observer of the power struggle unfolding around her, and the speech in which she makes the case for that despised majority ironically becomes the highlight of the play.
Sarks keeps the play’s momentum going and stages the meeting at which Stockman attempts to make her case well, but Mel Page’s set design is problematic. A structure at the rear of the stage represents both Stockman’s house and the spa. But it is constructed so that when the actors perform in it their faces are frequently obscured and voice enhancement is used. The difference in sound is disconcerting.
An Enemy of the People is a play that will always have relevance. Belvoir’s production, in spite of its drawbacks, still makes a valid case for it.
An Enemy of the People is being performed by Belvoir Theatre 7 October to 4 November 2018. Performance attended: 11 October.
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