sat 20/04/2024

An Enemy of the People, Duke of York's Theatre - performative and predictable | reviews, news & interviews

An Enemy of the People, Duke of York's Theatre - performative and predictable

An Enemy of the People, Duke of York's Theatre - performative and predictable

Matt Smith gives his all in unyielding adaptation of Ibsen morality play

Question time: Matt Smith as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People'Manuel Harlan

Real life is a helluva lot scarier right now than you might guess from the performative theatrics on display in the new West End version of An Enemy of the People, which updates Ibsen's 1882 play to our vexatious modern day.

Matt Smith is in fine, furious form as the crusading Thomas Stockmann, but the combative landscape is here so predictably writ large - its emotions so preordained - that Thomas Ostermeier's production feels as if it's running in place: an opinion piece online would have made the same points far more quickly. 

Ostermeier, the German director/adaptor working on this occasion with Duncan Macmillan's English-language version, has staged this Ibsen text before in a Schaubühne production from Berlin that was acclaimed in a Barbican run in 2014. But so accelerated are the ways by which argument gets transmitted these days that the putative modernity already seems out-of-date. Where are the Twitter/X mob and vigilantes that one can too easily envisage taking over this very story, were it to happen today (as its equivalents have been doing for some time - take the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, for instance)? 

Paul Hilton as Peter Stockmann in 'An Enemy of the People'As it is, Smith is in cool, hipster mode as a young father inhabiting a "little provincial town" (for which, read the entirety of venal Britain just now) whose vaunted baths are nothing but "a gleaming cesspit", a swamp in genuine need of being drained to cite a zeitgeisty phrase that is given an anticipated workout. The poisoning of the water proves cause for alarm that doesn't sit well with Stockmann's brother Peter (a scowling Paul Hilton, fresh from Ibsen's Ghosts at the Globe and pictured right).

A glowering politico concerned only with money and reputation - both his own and the town's - the mayor isn't best disposed to want bacterial contamination brought to the local press, especially with newspaper editor Hovstad (Shubham Saraf) on hand to help blow the whistle.

Hovstad is shown, however briefly, in an erotic clinch with Stockmann's wife Katharina (a spry Jessica Brown Findlay, pictured below), which turns out to be a red herring, whilst the music-making aspect of Stockmann's creative emergies yields centre-stage to a bespectacled Zachary Hart as one of several incipient rock and rollers who fly a rather obvious flag for David Bowie's "Heroes": the very same song informs the new musical Just For One Day across town, its applicability these days seemingly infinite. 

Nigel Lindsay shows up as Stockmann's dismissive father-in-law, Kiil, bringing with him a dog that enlivens proceedings which, in the first act anyway, are - you'll forgive the word - quite dogged. The interplay between the characters feels so piecemeal that you can't tell what's at stake once you move beyond the shape of water, which may be why Hilton in particular locks his face into a perma-frown throughout. (Jan Pappelbaum's graffiti-scrawled set literalises the idea of things being whitewashed.)

I can't say things improved - at least for me - after the interval, when the newspaper publisher Aslaksen (Priyanga Burford) opens up the debate to a town hall gathering that allows the theatre audience to be the citizenry and to respond to a sustained broadside from Stockmann that scores all the points you might expect - and delivers some facts you might not: who knew that to count to one billion would take 32 years?

Jessica Brown Findlay as Katharina Stockmann in 'An Enemy of the People'Leaning into his theme, Stockmann takes to the pulpit as befits someone characterised early on as "craving an audience". It's certainly not hard to share in his righteous outrage, the pile-up of vitriol encompassing virtually every social ill. (I applauded the inevitable rhetorical question, "When did facts become subjective?") He goes on to trumpet concerns about "losing my mind," though not nearly as woundingly as have friends of mine locked in ongoing, psychologically depleting ideological battle with the likes of Donald Trump. Kiil's response is a curt "calmez-vous", accompanied by a sneering attack on intellectuals which tallies with today's realpolitik.

"Nuance is bulldozed," Stockmann proclaims, and Ostermeier might have taken that assertion rather more directly to heart. Rather than let us perceive the insidious, incremental reach of a community's psychic pollution, the production opts throughout for the big gesture. The bile culminates in a fusillade of paintballs that is surely fun to engage in on a nightly basis and that is previewed on the photographs on display about the theatre. 

Fuming that "the truth will be heard", Stockmann put me in mind of Alexei Navalny, who recently went to his grave promising exactly that. This Enemy of the People courses with anger to burn, too much of it of the preemptive, predigested sort that pales into significance once you exit the theatre only to land back in the ongoing lacerations of life.

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