Public Enemy – Young Vic Theatre, London – review by Carole Woddis.

Taken from Ibsen’s `An Enemy of the People’ (1882), David Harrower’s radical new version in Richard Jones’ smash and grab production is also perfectly in keeping with Ibsen’s intentions.

Ibsen’s original was a blast in reply to the public outcry against his previous play, Ghosts (1881) which had dared to talk openly about the relationship between sexual hypocrisy and upright citizenship – men with public reputations whose legacy to their children betray hidden, sexually loose lives.

`Enemy of the People’ condemns not only those in authority – particularly petty small town bureaucrats – but the `silent majority’ whose apathy allows them to be ruled by such men (and this is very much a man’s world).  It also in Ibsen’s hands becomes a potent demonstration of expediency.

When the `good’ Dr. Stockmann discovers that the spa baths on which his small town relies for its economic well-being have become infected and suggests they should be closed down, the battle to reveal the truth becomes literally a do-or-die conflict.  Will the safeguarding of public health win out?  Or are the economic consequences for the town so high the information must be suppressed at all costs?

Harrower and Jones, an opera as well as theatre director with a taste for the flamboyant and stylistically disorientating, turn this battle into a very 20th century story of political and media betrayal.  Miriam Buether’s design, circa 1950s abstract retro, emphasises a kind of ugly mediocrity.  Harrower’s dialogue, blunt, to the point, expands into a full blown harangue in Dr. Stockmann’s town council address delivered by Nick Fletcher, microphone in hand, house lights blazing, as a furiously ironic attack on us, the ruled, as well as a democratic system that plays into the hands of cynical politicians and the media.

`Don’t vote’, he finally pleads, `keep your dignity.  Don’t take part in this fraudulent system.  Join the non-voting party.’

In an era of 24 hour news and a constant `feed’ of opinion, when our political system has never been more unpredictable, this is a message that carries an unusually powerful impact.

It may not be quite the play old Ibsen wrote – too much has been jettisoned and reconfigured – but I suspect he’d completely approve of its full frontal assault and ambivalent ending.

Robbed of job, house (well and truly trashed) and future, Stockmann despite the devastating effect on his family, is even more convinced of his own rightness.

`The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.  I am that man.  I am the strongest man in the world,’ he declares obsessively, over and over again.  Chilling, it leaves the question hanging.  Who is the real moralist here?

To June 8.

Carole Woddis © June 5, 2013.