Saturday 13 July 2013

Theatre Review: An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen, Gate Theatre, Dublin

Henrik Ibsen is one of those writers you can cite when people don’t believe nineteenth-century literature is relevant to today. ‘Look!’ you can cry, ‘political commentary, analysis of gender constructs, even discussion of venereal disease!’ But the problem with director Wayne Jordan’s production of An Enemy of the People at the Gate Theatre in Dublin is that it hammers home this relevance at expense of all else. Further difficulty is caused by the fact that the text used is Arthur Miller’s translation from the 1950s (the period suggested by Paul O’Mahony’s set and Joan O’Clery’s costumes). What exactly is the analogy here? Between fin-de-siècle Norway and Miller’s America in the time of McCarthyism? Or the latter and modern Ireland in the wake of financial crisis, ‘an inconceivable time when the many must take the consequences for the risks taken by a few’, as the director notes?

The Secret Victorianist goes to An Enemy of the People

 An Enemy of the People (1882) is the story of a man, Dr Stockmann, who thinks there is a problem with the water supply to the town’s therapeutic baths. His brother, Peter, who is Mayor, is worried about the economic impact of such a theory becoming public knowledge and so sets out to silence him.

The decision to highlight the play’s Scandinavian setting despite the obvious Americanisation of Miller’s script – on a linguistic and ideological level – was always going to be problematic and the result was a curious blend of preachiness and overstatement, which I hadn’t found in reading Christopher Hampton’s wonderful translation, with confusion as to what the play was actually preaching. Denis Conway’s Peter Stockmann was very much the villain to Declan Conlon’s heroic Dr Stockmann in a move which robbed Ibsen’s play of much of its subtlety and moral subjectivity. The journalists Billing (Mark Huberman) and Hovstad (Ronan Leahy)’s sexual interest in the doctor’s daughter Petra (Jill Harding) was also made much more overt from the outset, making the later revelation of their ulterior motives much less shocking and decidedly predictable.

Declan Conlon and Denis Conway in An Enemy of the People

 Throughout there was a feeling of being spoken down to, in a way which had much less to do with the original play I think, than with staging and delivery. It wasn’t only during the climactic town meeting that the audience felt lectured, and here our alignment with the crowd, as the citizens moved amongst us, felt ill thought through as the paucity of actors made their attack on the doctor far from intimidating. The irritating scene changes, in which suited men and women moved furniture officiously while glaring out at us against the noise of static interference on a radio, also felt heavy-handed, as the clever device by which the set increasingly narrowed the stage space available would have been enough to indicate the family’s increasing entrapment.

With a strong cast (particularly Bosco Hogan as Morten Kiil and Barry McGovern as Aslaksen), the whole production felt a little like a missed opportunity and it was disappointing that the implications of certain directorial decisions seemed to have been ignored. The successful commentary on women’s exclusion from political questions which earlier scenes in the Stockmann household had raised for instance was undercut by having one of the vocal citizens at the meeting be a woman. And the potentially fascist direction in which the doctor’s belief in a superior elite took his speech felt hurried over and unexplored, as the production celebrated his revolutionary spirit entirely uncritically.

Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler

 After seeing two wonderful Ibsen productions in London in the last year – A Doll’s House at the Young Vic and Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic – I was a little disappointed. If you want the real deal, and to appreciate Ibsen’s unflinching moral complexity, this play is one to read, and probably not in Miller’s translation. 

Dominic Rowan and Hattie Morahan in The Doll's House

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