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Public Enemy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Niall Ashdown (Aslaksen) & Darrell D'Silva (Mayor) in Public Enemy

The art of saying the unpopular truth is always attractive, and in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which David Harrower has rewritten for ace director Richard Jones as Public Enemy (from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund), medical officer Dr Thomas Stockmann undermines the tourist industry in his small Norwegian spa town by insisting that the water is contaminated.

This sets off a chain reaction of tentative support then rejection by his own brother, the Mayor (a splendidly greasy portrayal by Darrell D'Silva), the newspaper editor Hovstad (Bryan Dick), the turncoat, slug-like printer Aslaksen (the very sight of Niall Ashdown makes you want to have a cold shower; well done, him!) and his own father-in-law, Morten Kiil, whom David Sibley presents as an ageing Davy Crockett frontiersman with a pony-tail and a large rifle.

The production - which races by in one hundred uninterrupted minutes - unlocks all the excitement of Ibsen without looking anything much like an Ibsen play, a trick Jones alone can pull off; he's done it with Brecht and Gogol at this address, and it's a brilliant way of making classic drama hum for young audiences.

Stockmann is often played as some stiff-backed ideologue with a touch of the Coriolanuses, proudly bearing the wounds of public disaffection with a noble toss of the head: "The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone."

According to Jones, and Nick Fletcher who plays the good doctor as a repressed lunatic in a really terrible wig, as if making himself look stupid far in advance of his egotistical meltdown, this stance is partly, if not wholly, risible, a symptom of arid self-importance.

And his wife, hilariously and sarcastically played by Charlotte Randle, wimpers mockingly as he outlines his proposal for a home education programme in which he will teach his own sons how to be free, oblivious to the fact that his radical political propriety has cost his own daughter, Petra (Beatrice Walker in plaits and walking boots), her job as a teacher in the community at large. Saying what you think does not always help the right cause.

What is brilliantly captured is this double-edged nature of Stockmann's campaign. The great public oratory scene is done as a booby trap in which Stockmann's rhetoric about the intelligent people in society being outnumbered by the stupid turns into a cynical dismissal of all political action: join the non-voting party, he cries, like a Norwegian Nigel Farage without the wax mac or the pint.

Jones' production is designed by Miriam Buether to resemble some big Scandinavian sauna with a glittering vista of lakes and mountains through windows that are unceremoniously smashed in the last act after Stockmann has told the mob that the minority is always right. You could hear the audience both heaving inwardly with agreement and joining in a round of silent catcalls.


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