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Act 4 of the Arcola Theatre production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a play brilliantly adapted and skilfully reinterpreted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, includes a fleeting moment when the pompous brother of the play’s anti-hero smiles a benign greeting at the audience. This smile emanates from the lips of the tall, top-hatted, and be-caned Mayor of the local spa town, overseer of the sole tourist attraction, the local baths. Unfortunately, these same baths are contaminated with waste from the hillside tannery. This fiery scene is the public meeting called by the Mayor to appease his shareholders, as well as the local homeowners. Like a Clinton or Obama playing the crowd, Mayor Peter Stockman (played with relish by Christopher Godwin) is obviously playing us. A single moment of theatre demonstrates our own complicity in a timeless narrative of local-authority greed, of press manipulation, and of the suppression of painful truth.
The truth, or at least the sorry reality of the town’s unwholesome and potentially dangerous tourist attraction, belongs to the moral high ground of Dr Thomas Stockman. Dr Stockman is played with passion and integrity by Greg Hicks. Stockman has found the health-giving waters teeming with poisonous bacteria. His findings, to be published in the local newspaper, offer the chance for a mini socialist revolution, with exposure leading to the forced removal of that traditional power structure which Dr Stockman’s brother so deviously represents. The welfare of the longed-for spa visitors and tourists is, of course, of paramount importance to this idealist; unfortunately, the ego of Dr Stockman is as dangerous as the intransigent self-interest of his brother the mayor.
The inevitable happens as the local newspaper’s editor and printer, all idealists whose own mortgage repayments are threatened by the spa’s closure, rally behind the corrupt baths shareholders to suppress the doctor’s findings. The public meeting falls into confusion as the locals are rallied into a fascinating state of negative democracy. The doctor is humiliated. Worse, he and his family are vilified as the eponymous enemies of the people.
Mehmet Ergan’s wonderful production is enhanced by the design concept of Jason Southgate. Southgate has recreated a stylized Nordic-pine acting space, complete with meandering cess-pool of poisonous water strewn with the discarded chemical analysis reports from the local university. Cleanliness and filth intermingle with the same ease as that invisible bacterial infection which Stockman is so eager to expose. The acting space can be effortlessly transformed from an intimate doctoral residence to a bustling newspaper office, and then to a hastily constructed meeting-place for the townsfolk. All the time, that stagnant water glistens and shifts with ominous liquidity, a permanent reminder of the dangers which inevitably will befall the town and its inhabitants.
An Enemy of the People is a remarkable play which is as relevant, indeed possibly more relevant, today as it was all those years ago. A faultless cast captures the fear and threat to civic pride and civic security which Stockman so violently and so futilely conjures. Greg Hicks soars on the broken wings of idealism, only to crash like one of those rocks hurled ignominiously through his office window. A must-see.
Kevin Quarmby © 2008
Originally published on R&V 09-04-08
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