Sheffield’s epic, Victorian-costumed production of An Enemy of the People, using Christopher Hampton’s translation, is stock full of debuts. We see Antony Sher tackle his first Ibsen role (no doubt the first debut of his in a while), Daniel Evans make his bow as artistic director for Sheffield Theatres, and the first production on the Crucible stage after its £15.3 million redevelopment.
Sher takes Dr Tomas Stockmann into delightfully idiosyncratic territory, with blazing excitement in his eyes, and restless hops at the discovery he hopes will save the town if he alerts his brother, the mayor, and the local community, to the contamination of its recently completed coastal spa.
The quivering merriment and intellectual enthusiasm turns to indignation as gradually the false morality of all who surround him is exposed: whether it be Hovstad, corrupted editor of local newspaper The People’s Messenger (excellently played with inflammatory fervour by Trystan Gravelle), or the paper’s publisher, the self-congratulatory Aslaksen (Phillip Joseph), announcing the virtues of "moderation" at every opportunity.
The Stockmann brothers’ relationship is thrillingly established from the off; the joviality of Sher’s Tomas a contrast to the stiff formality and tight-fisted nature of John Shrapnel’s Peter. It's the skilled interplay between Sher and Shrapnel that drives the fairly chunky tracts of debate - from Ibsen’s liberal political ideas to their discussion of the baths - into the realm of truly compelling theatre.
Lucy Cohu’s Katrine is a good-humoured, patient wife to Tomas, keeping the peace within her household, a willing hostess to those who later repay her ill for her kindness. Cohu’s restrained bursts of frustration in the face of her husband’s single-mindedness are neatly played, as her dismay grows with each downward turn of events.
Susannah Fielding makes a spirited performance as Petra, Dr Stockmann’s daughter and local school teacher, staunchly defending her father’s ideas and rejecting the advances of Hovstad when he appears to make a mockery of them. Petra is far more impressed by the constancy of Captain Horster, a strapping seaman played by Chook Sibtain. Brodie Ross’ awkward, pompous delivery as a bespectacled Mr Billing is entertaining, if occasionally a touch too one-dimensional.
Designer Ben Stones’ huge facade of the wooden house, influenced by a simple Scandinavian style, is strikingly pale. Upstage, sliding wooden doors are either left open onto a dining room set up, a living backdrop to the front room action, or closed to evoke the printing press, hazy moving figures and the silhouette of a wheel glimpsed behind translucent panes of glass.
Though a few eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of a 30-strong community cast, their contribution is triumphantly orchestrated, and impressively executed. Evans’ direction makes full use of the Crucible’s capacious thrust stage, leaving clusters of the cast in the stairwell, bringing us right into the whirl of action with their whispers of confusion and shouts of disagreement at the public meeting Tomas holds to persuade the town of their folly.
In An Enemy of the People, a weighty member of Ibsen’s realistic social plays, some might deem the point too heavily hammered home. But the great verve of Evans’ direction ensures the action never gets bogged down, constantly drawing the intellectual threads of Ibsen’s criticism of stagnant middle-class values onwards and climaxing with a beautiful, haunting final image.