Review: An Enemy of the People (Nottingham Playhouse)

Ibsen’s classic is revived in a gender-switched production starring Alex Kingston

Alex Kingston and Emma Pallant in An Enemy of the People
Alex Kingston and Emma Pallant in An Enemy of the People
© Tristram Kenton

It's not difficult to see why there are revivals of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People left right and centre. With all its "contemporary resonances", you are left astonished as to how Ibsen could come up with it over a century ago in 1882. But instead of feeling that all the usual Brexit references are crowbarred into the production, adaptor Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Adam Penford have fashioned a taut and absorbing version – at its centre a tantalising moral dilemma concerning, yes, that's right, the local baths of a municipality in Norway.

Dr Stockmann, our central character, has learned after some extensive research that said baths, which attract people from far and wide for their restorative effects, are contaminated with poisonous chemicals. Stockmann resolves to expose this by publishing her findings in the local rag, whose liberal writers and editors at first support her "revolution". There is of course resistance from the authorities, namely her mayor brother Peter, who is loathe to expose the truth for the economic damage it would cause to the town and its people. By the beginning of the second act the townspeople (an ominous and effective presence here) and her supporters are doubting and failing Stockmann, and Lenkiewicz's text becomes a fascinating study on how far we can stand by our principles if it affects livelihoods or the people we love. It's also a sobering look at how power builds through word of mouth, the press or the pack mentality, but most controversially perhaps, it asks questions about democracy – there are some delicious moments at a rally in the rain in the fourth act, by which time you are almost joining in, cringing at or applauding Stockman's speeches. In the end, as Ibsen masterfully intends, we probably haven't a clue what to think.

Alex Kingston presents us with an almost manic, flitting Stockman, bursting with energy and idealism, who at times you might be for and against. Malcolm Sinclair is her dour and surly foil as Peter, and he brilliantly evinces much of the humour in the play. Two capital performances come from both of these fine actors, who were supported by Emma Pallant as a changeable Hovstadt, Tim Samuels as a droll and 'restrained' Aslaksen and Deka Walmsley and Donna Banya as Stockmann's long-suffering yet unfailingly loyal family, caught in the eye of the storm. Their support of their mother and wife is admirable and some further visible emotional transaction and exploration, certainly on Stockmann's part, could have heightened the intensity of some scenes between them. Perhaps though it is a deliberate directorial decision to render Stockmann detached, damaged and hellbent on her cause, even if it is to the detriment of her family.

Morgan Large's design, mostly a raised platform for a living room, means characters come and go easily and often those not in a scene linger to the side of the stage, digesting and listening. Frans Bak's music gradually enhances the weight of the dilemma on Stockmann's shoulders, particularly at the close of acts.

It all makes for a classy and totally compelling night of theatre.