In An Enemy of the People (adapted for the Arcola by Rebecca Lenkiewicz) Thomas Stockmann, the Medical Officer at a spa, discovers that the water supply is contaminated with bacteria and industrial toxins and advises the local authorities and press, in the belief that the council and the townspeople will support his demand for the immediate closure of the baths while the problem is solved.
But the councillors have a financial stake in the baths and the townspeople rely on visitors to the spa to help them fund their property-owning lifestyles, whilst even members of his own family - his brother (the mayor, who had rejected his advice about the placing of the water pipes when the spa was built) and his father-in-law (who owns one of the offending factories) - attempt to use smear tactics and blackmail to make him retract his claims. Moreover, the editor and printer of the local paper are serving their own political ends, not the public interest, in reporting the story. And the doctor himself, whom we admire for his determination to make the truth about the baths known at all costs, becomes a morally ambiguous figure when he reveals his opinions about the political and social order of the day.
In Mehmet Ergen's production, Thomas Stockmann is played by the wonderful Greg Hicks who, in an increasingly intense and ever more complex portrayal, brilliantly strips away the character's surface layers – conviviality, scientific enthusiasm and a public-spirited desire to serve the town he loves - to reveal an inner personality that is deeply unsettling. The political naivety initially evident in his handling of the situation at the baths is succeeded by a powerful denunciation of democracy, delivered in a manner that suggests that fanaticism is only a short step from righteous indignation. And the portrayal also hints that the ultimate outcome of the mental traumas he undergoes when not only his political theories but also his scientific truths are rejected may be madness. But Greg Hicks also ensures that the character never loses our sympathy, so that our ultimate attitude to him is (appropriately in a play that is itself open-ended) ambivalent.
Jim Bywater catches the humorous contradictions in the character of Aslaksen, the printer (whose avowed left-wing politics have not prevented him becoming the chairman of the local Property Owner's Association) very well indeed, whilst Christopher Godwin, as the doctor's brother, casts a suitably ominous presence every time he enters.
The set and costumes suggest the period of Ibsen's original work. However, as the play depicts the vagaries of local councils, the power of the press to manipulate public opinion and the potentially dire consequences of the reckless pursuit of profit, it has a powerful contemporary relevance that transcends the temporal context in which it is placed and which enhances the intense feelings of audience involvement it creates. This is a superb production of a very fine play, entertaining and thought-provoking by turns. I strongly urge you to see it if you can.
- Janet Polson
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