“The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.” That is the proud cry of Thomas Stockmann, ostracised in his own community, at the end of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Stockmann has discovered that the baths on which the small coastal town’s prosperity rests are contaminated. He refuses to accept that half measures might solve the problem.
At the Arcola, Greg Hicks goes beyond the usual resonating trumpet call to suggest notes of insanity. The cost of his “aloneness” will be a sort of provincial madness as his contempt for the mob – in Ibsen’s great fourth act, the public meeting, Hicks reawakens his own scathing RSC Coriolanus – crumbles with the realisation of the personal cost involved.
The Arcola’s Ibsen Season is fast off the blocks, so fast in fact that Mehmet Ergen’s production is all over in barely two hours, ten minutes. Working from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz has provided a text that is snappy and idiomatic, fully accurate to Ibsen’s five act structure and narrative, but also patently modern.
Stockmann is a one-man “health and safety” unit, so we are with him all the way as he defies his brother the Mayor (Christopher Godwin), the editor of the local newspaper (Daniel Rabin) who fears a collapse of the spa town’s commercial status, and his own father-in-law (Robin Browne), whose hillside tanneries have created the bacterial infection in the water.
Just as Shaw’s Major Barbara at the NT resonates as a dramatic metaphor about “clean” money and the weapons of war, so Ibsen’s great drama, written just after Ghosts in 1882, inflates the personal tragedy of disease into the wider context of progress, pollution and the conspiracy against press freedom by those who should first defend it.
Hicks gives a hypnotically bravura display as a whirlwind campaigner driven almost literally crazy by the consequences of his own discoveries as the town’s medical officer. He tears into the play like a man possessed, as indeed he is. It is a truly magnificent performance, attended with almost heart-broken resignation by Catherine his wife (Alison McKenna) and their loyal sea captain friend Horster (Sean Campion).
There are notable contributions, too, from Jim Bywater as the vacillating printer and trades unionist, Aslaksen, and the vocally intriguing Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Stockmann’s daughter Petra, who loses her job as a teacher because of the civic uproar.
It’s by no means a perfect production – and Jason Southgate’s design looks unfortunately like a large garden shed from Homebase – but it has an edgy, urgent quality about it, and tugs energetically at the issues of a play that is still definitely one for today.