Despite a retina-searingly bright set that looks like a cross between a ski chalet and everything that was wrong with the ’60s (er, in a good way – credit to designer Miriam Buether), Richard Jones’s revival of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Public Enemy’ is a surprisingly understated affair that starts slow and gathers intractable momentum.
Central to ‘Public Enemy’ are two feuding brothers and a public baths. Both Nick Fletcher’s Doctor Stockmann and Darrell D’Silva Mayor have grown fat on the profits of their small town’s baths, and are looking forward to a bumper summer as the tourist season approaches. But then Stockmann gets a letter– he’s sent the supposedly medicinal water of the baths for analysis and it turns out it’s heaving with bacteria and needs to be shut down immediately. For this discovery, he supposes he will become a hero to the townsfolk.
Except his shifty sibling doesn’t see it like that. The cost to the town would be immense, and he persuades the town’s most influential citizens to censure the report.
It is a remarkably apt allegory for pretty much everything wrong with modern politics, vested interests and government in general, most obviously our depressing inability to come together and combat climate change.
Where adaptor David Harrower takes it a step further is Stockmann’s speech to the citizens of the town, addressed directly to the audience. Though undoubtedly an egotist, in most other productions the doctor is a misunderstood, perhaps tragic hero. But as Fletcher slowly bring the play to the boil, he offers us something more troubling.
When he calmly, hypnotically lambasts the venality of politicians it’s easy to get on board. But then he turns on democracy itself, in a chillingly precise tone that hovers between absolute candidness and repellent megalomania. He argues that democracy has fostered a world in which ill-informed people feel their opinion is equally as valid as anybody else. At best he is arguing for greater personal responsibility; clearly what he’s really advocating is closer to fascism.
Ibsen/Harrower aren’t supporting the far right – but they do lay out some brutal truths about human nature in what amounts to a fairly nihilistic piece of writing. The fact it’s all rather enjoyable can be attributed to the compact length, accelerating pace, riotous visuals and a wonderful cast packed full of great smaller turns – Charlotte Randle is particularly good as Stockmann’s long-suffering but magnificently feisty wife. Bleak stuff, thrillingly presented.