An Enemy of The People
By Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Howard Davies
Designed by Tim Hatley
Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday 23rd April 2016
Dr Tomas Stockmann – medical officer at the new Spa baths – Hugh Bonneville
Katrina Stockmann, his wife – Abigail Cruttendon
Petra Stockmann , their daughter, a schoolteacher- Alice Orr-Ewing
Eljif, their son – Alfie Scott
Morten, their son – Jack Taylor
Morten Kill, a tanner, Katrina’s father – Trevor Cooper
Peter Stockmann, the mayor, and Thomas’ brother – William Gaminara
Hovstad, editor of the People’s Messenger – Adam James
Billing, sub-editor of the People’s Messenger – Michael Fox
Aslaksen, printer and publisher of the People’s Messenger – Jonathan Cullen
Captain Horster, a sea captain – Jim Creighton
Anders – Keiran Gough
Mr Vic – Paul Jacobs
Pettersen- Richard Pryals
Citizens – a cast of THIRTY TWO people
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death today and we’re seeing Ibsen. Still, Stratford or Southwark would be too crowded. The main attraction for us was “Adapted by Christopher Hampton” whose version of Florian Zeller’s The Truth got a five star review from me a couple of weeks ago. Hampton’s version of An Enemy of The People dates back to 1997, and it is the Faber & Faber text that you’re most likely to find. The play was first performed in 1882. This production sets it somewhere in the 1930s or 1940s.
I guess Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville was a major seat selling lead, plus I now rely on Chichester even if the play seems unprepossessing. Last year Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered at Chichester was also directed by Howard Davies and a surprise “hit.”
This is the second performance, and so I know it’s a preview, but last year we thought the preview of The Rehearsal was even better than the polished production at the end of the run. Our theatre booking tries to leave a month free of commitments, which means catching the early Chichester productions near the start. I thought it a tad stiff early on which might reflect such an early performance, but it warmed up so much later, that it could be intrinsic to the play.
Dr Stockmann (Hugh Bonneville) with Mayor Peter Stockmann (William Gaminara)
An Enemy Of The People has resonance today on the topic of whistleblowers. Dr Stockmann, as medical officer at the new town baths, is waiting for lab results at the beginning of the play. When his daughter, Petra, brings in the post, it confirms his research. The spa baths has heavy bacterial contamination. There are other towns that could open a spa but haven’t (yet), and the new baths are set to be a major tourist attraction. Dr Stockmann thinks he will be greeted as a local hero and rewarded and applauded for his discovery. The left-wing newspaper people, Hovstad and Billings, support and encourage him. The paper is called The People’s Messenger – which gives an added twist to the play’s title. The printer / publisher is Aslaken, a man devoted to moderation and temperance. His repeated assertions of his belief in moderation are one of the few humorous things in the play. Another is that Dr Stockmann hears his views on temperance and then offers him a sherry. This reinforces the campaigner who knows he’s right, but does not actually listen to people.
Peter Stockmann, the mayor is the doctor’s brother and runs the spa project, so is also effectively his boss. He immediately sees the disastrous effect on tourism – the baths will have to shut for two years and the new water supply will cost a fortune. He tries to dissuade Dr Stockmann, but Stockmann is determined to get the story out and is oblivious to the consequences. You can see why Bath’s Theatre Royal, let alone Matlock and Cheltenham, might not be racing to produce a play on contaminated water in spa towns.
At this point, a mere 50 minutes in, they take the interval. Ibsen wrote it in five acts, and this production splits it 2 acts /3 acts. Generally audiences prefer a longer first part, shorter second part, but it’s pragmatic – they have a major set change to the newspaper offices for Act 3. It’s the best point, I think. Acts 1 and 2 display what I don’t like about the play. It’s didactic, a tad dull and rather obvious in its targets. Perhaps that’s why George Bernard Shaw so promoted Ibsen’s political drama. While Ibsen may be the template for the whistleblower story … which inevitably leads to media participation in the cover up in Act 3 … he misses a vital element, which is the initial discovery via investigative journalism or via an insider who reveals all, that there is something to cover up. We find the discovery full-blown as soon as Dr Stockmann opens the letter. Ibsen’s template has been improved.
The newspaper office: Billing (Michael Fox) foreground, Hovstad (Adam James) background
The reason the break works after Act Two, is that the play really takes off after the interval, so that a longer second part does not ‘feel long.’ The newspaper office in Act Three has lots of comings and goings with the doctor and the mayor, and the mayor convinces them to go with his version of the contamination (basically spraying a bit of Dettol on the side will solve it). Stockmann is rendered mute by the media, so decides to call a meeting in the town and read out his results.
The town meeting, Hovstad pointing to Dr Stockmann
Act Four is the town meeting, and such a superb piece of production and performance that it makes the play worth seeing, if only for Act Four. Howard Davies has used thirty two extras, emerging from every part of the theatre, all in costume, to harangue Stockmann. The “drunk” appears in every area of the theatre during the scene, and when there is a unanimous vote to declare Stockmann “an enemy of the people” the drunk is the lone dissenter. The watching family and Mayor’s party are on chairs down among the audience. The fourth wall is not so much broken as ground into fine dust and blown away. Bonneville gives a tremendous performance, at times the lone person on stage. They elect Aslaken as chairman of the meeting and everything Stockmann tries to say is cut off. This Act 4 will be one of the most memorable theatre pieces of 2016. Thirty-two citizens, I assume Evenson, Vik and Pettersen are the ones who led the shouting (and were on the main stage for the curtain call), so effectively thirty-five. How does Chichester manage that? Volunteers? Amateur companies? They can’t all be ASMs. I have no idea.
Aslaksen: A man of moderation (Jonathen Cullen)
Act 5 starts with a bang too. The script dictates that Stockmann’s house has had its windows broken by the mob. There is a sudden flash of windows breaking which is a technical feat. In Act 5 we discover that Petra has been sacked, the sea captain has been sacked … we know Stockmann has been sacked. The plot twist involves Kill, Stockmann’s stepfather. Kill owns the tannery that is a major source of pollution. The blinkered Stockmann fails to envisage that Kill might just be upset by his revelations. He discovers that though he has lost his job and medical practice, Kill has left money to his grandchildren in his will, and Stockmann and his wife can live on the interest. Finally, Kill reveals that he has invested all the money in shares in the baths, bought dirt cheap when Stockmann’s discovery drove the price down. Others think that Stockmann deliberately drove the price down for Kill. And now Stockmann and his kids must rely on the baths being successful. Guess what Sockmann’s attitude is?
Ibsen predicts much about the global stockmarket here. Ethical investments? So you buy shares in a health insurance company. But what do they buy shares in? If you have any kind of private pension, or any kind of bank interest, then eventually, somewhere down he line there will be unethical investment. It may be a few removes, but you can’t escape that. I also wondered about the phrase “an enemy of the people” later so much used by Communist regimes from Stalin to Mao. The phrase dates back to Roman times … Emperor Nero was declared hostis publicus back in AD 68. Robespierre used it in 1793, but the main Russian use, starting with Lenin in 1917, post-dates Ibsen.
Dr Stockmann’s most quotable line – which drew the best laugh of the evening
We don’t need to be convinced that Hugh Bonneville’s Dr Stockmann is a well-meaning, morally upright, somewhat out of touch with the times, stubborn but intrinsically good chap. This is Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and all that back image sweeps on stage with him. His detail work on facial expression and gesture shows why he has become such a popular actor. Brilliant. Incidentally, Michael Fox who plays the newspaper sub-editor Billing was the footman, Andy, in the last series of Downton Abbey. He was another who got laughs with his revolutionary lines and “bloody this and that.” The cast were all excellent, getting past the initial stiffness of Ibsen and rounding out character. Particular praise to Abigail Cruttenden as Mrs Stockman and William Gaminara as the testily manipulative Mayor. Adam James’ Hovstad was also first rate.
Dr Stockmann (Hugh Bonneville) at the town meeting
I had some issues with set design and blocking. The seats at the Festival Theatre are in an angled semi-circle around a thrust stage. Those at both extreme ends had a blank wall in front of them, and the blocking in the first part particularly had people seated with their backs to one side, and major speeches with back to about 25% of the audience. We were nearly central, near the front, so had a great view, but I could see people twisting and turning at the sides when a major role had their backs to them. A lot was played full forward on the thrust stage, while further back would have benefitted the people at the sides. To a degree the same is true with all thrust stages, but the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is much more “surrounded” so it’s a constant issue. Here it’s a halfway house, and I felt less consideration went into the view from the extreme sides … we heard people complaining in the interval. My advice if you’re booking is “further back but reasonably central” is better than further forward but at the extreme sides for this play.
All in all, An Enemy Of The People, is never going to be a favourite play for me. We trust Chichester’s season, and wouldn’t have booked a production elsewhere, but we were pleased to have seen it.
Overall *** three stars (with a five star Act 4)
Chichester was best theatre in my 2014 and 2015 round-ups. It runs away with the best facilities. This was the first year we joined as “Friends” – in general the main Festival Theatre is so large that it’s reasonably easy to get tickets – but the Minerva is not large, and we wanted the early booking advantage.
I will note that both the RSC and Globe give 10% restaurant discounts to Friends, as well as 10% in the bookshop. The Globe even extends the 10% to programmes. You don’t get anything here, and the various Friends events would be good if you lived locally. We don’t.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Howard Davies, director
Christopher Hampton, adaptation
The Truth, by Florian Zeller, adapted Christopher Hampton, Menier London
The Seagull, Headlong on tour, 2013
Hay Fever, Theatre Royal Bath