An Enemy of the People at the National - Olivier
Note: This production of An Enemy of the People finished its initial National run on 22 January 1998 before returning on 28 April to the Olivier where it closes 20 June.
Ibsen pitted himself against a mighty force when he wrote An Enemy of the People. In the play, he explodes the myth that the greatest threat to society comes from the ranks of government, the rich or the generic forces of authority. These are comfortable adversaries for an audience, but Ibsen doesn't let us off so easily. He exposes the greatest enemy of the people to be the people themselves, the solid majority, with which the audience must surely be counted.
The story concerns Dr Thomas Stockmann (Sir Ian McKellen), a naive scientist who discovers that the water in his town's new baths is contaminated. He believes he's saved the town and will be justly feted, but the authorities, including his own brother the mayor (Stephen Moore, disagree. They try to stop him from spreading news of the contamination and turn his friends, supporters and, eventually, the whole town against him.
The poisoned bathwater is, of course, a metaphor for a contaminated society. With horror, we watch as the very people who at first drove Stockmann's campaign turn on him and declare him 'the enemy of the people' who is trying to destroy their town . In Arthur Miller's version of Enemy of the People, first staged during the McCarthy era in the United States, emphasis is on the play's fevered witchhunt. And while there is no escaping the baying crowd (especially when they're stepping on your toes in the stalls), this new translation of the play, by Christopher Hampton, reveals some new elements, such as the bitter sibling rivalry between the Stockmann brothers. Hampton also paints a more human Stockmann who, although still fighting heroically for right, has his faults.
McKellen's performance is nothing short of outstanding. From his initial bouncy eagerness to outraged martyrdom and ostracism, McKellen is riveting. He springs up on his toes, drums his fingers, licks his lips, gnaws his nails - each movement and expression and the almost casual delivery of his lines create a memorable Stockmann who both charms and frustrates us in his reckless single-mindedness. McKellen is supported by a strong cast - with Stephen Moore and John Woodvine (as Aslakson) turning in particularly winning performances - but there is no doubt that Sir Ian is the centre of this production, the brightest star in the constellation.
An Enemy of the People is Trevor Nunn's debut as the new director of the National and it certainly bodes well. Nunn does elect to stage Ibsen as if it were one of his lavish musicals with an incessantly revolving stage and immense cast of extras. The added glitz is unnecessary when the raw material is so brilliant on its own, but thankfully no one breaks into song.
But don't listen to what I say. Go and see Enemy of the People and form your own opinion, lest Ibsen come back to scold us. And email us with your comments.
Terri Paddock, October 1997