An Enemy of the People

  • Theatre
  • Drama
Critics' choice
1/4
© ARNO DECLAIR

'An Enemy of the People'

2/4
© ARNO DECLAIR

'An Enemy of the People'

3/4
© ARNO DECLAIR

'An Enemy of the People'

4/4
© ARNO DECLAIR

'An Enemy of the People'

Hotshot German director Thomas Ostermeier’s spunky Ibsen adaptation has been wowing audiences at Berlin’s Schaubühne Theatre for a few years now, its popularity assured by a notorious piece of audience interaction.

Ibsen’s play follows Dr Stockmann, a well-meaning scientist who discovers the spa waters that have made his hometown rich have become contaminated and need to be shut, pronto. Unfortunately the town’s leaders, who stand to lose money, do not share the doctor’s concern for the greater good. They guilefully turn the townsfolk against the seething Stockmann, who storms off, denouncing his fellow citizens as idiots.

Though Ibsen wrote the play as a response to the monstering he received over ‘Ghosts’, it’s become fashionable to interpret ‘An Enemy of the People’ as a debate on the nature of democracy – on whether the ‘enlightened’ Stockmann should have the right to overrule the will of the people (who have themselves been manipulated by vested interests).

Clearly this topic has a special resonance in Germany, and in Ostermeier’s production the cast turn the townhall debate into an actual debate involving the audience. While I didn’t follow all the German when I saw it in Berlin, it was furiously exciting to see, hear and semi-understand how fired up and passionate the well prepared hometown crowd was. How this translates – both literally and culturally – is to be seen. But it’s a meaty topic to dig in to, and in Berlin it was truly interactive theatre of the best kind.

And if that bit’s not for you, it isn’t the whole show. Despite the dramatic set piece, Ostermeier’s production is really rather charming and understated. Strumming popular songs and lolloping around hippyishly, Stockmann and his chums would appear to live together in an idyllic commune. But as the play wears on, there’s a creeping sense of money and jealousy poisoning their Eden, a suggestion that there is no real, satisfactory resolution to human society.

Which sounds very earnest, but there’s an agreeably sly wit to it all – Ostermeier has had the audacity to change the ending to something even more depressing than Ibsen’s, but he presents it with such a cheeky flourish that it’s hard not to fall for it.

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