Though at time it's heavy-handed, this modern interpretation of Ibsen's classic is engaging and vital.
Hear the name “Henrik Ibsen” and you’re likely to think of people with side whiskers wearing silk hats and having intense conversations in 19th-century Norwegian drawing rooms. But in Tarragon Theatre’s startling update of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which kicks off its 2014–15 season, the characters carry smartphones, drop F-bombs, and between conversations whip out their guitars to rehearse a classic David Bowie song. Ch-ch-changes, indeed.
You could argue that Ibsen’s ever-relevant 1882 play doesn’t need a modern makeover. This drama about a principled man who insists on telling an inconvenient truth—possibly at the expense of his town’s economy and his own livelihood—speaks directly to audiences regardless of its historical trappings. But seeing it tricked out like a contemporary play, you get a thrilling taste of what it must have been like to watch Ibsen’s work more than a century ago, when his truth telling and taboo busting scandalized Victorian-era theatregoers.
It also gives us a taste of how German theatre is treating the classics these days. This fresh-faced version of Ibsen’s play comes courtesy of Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, where it was originally adapted by Florian Borchmeyer and directed by the celebrated Thomas Ostermeier. (The Schaubühne toured the show to Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques last year.) For this English-language premiere, Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose commissioned a translation of Borchmeyer’s text by Maria Milisavljevic and has set out to capture the style and spirit of Ostermeier’s staging.
The play’s essential story remains intact: Dr. Thomas Stockmann (played by Joe Cobden), the medical officer at a small-town health spa, discovers that the spa’s healing waters are in fact dangerously polluted by industrial waste. He naïvely sets out to publish his findings in the local newspaper, assuming the townspeople will thank him for his discovery. Trouble is, the spa is the town’s biggest employer. The negative publicity could drive tourists away, while the massive cost of fixing the problem is beyond the town’s means.
Stockmann immediately locks horns with his big brother and lifelong rival, Peter (Rick Roberts), the spa’s CEO and a town councillor, who fights to have the news suppressed. But the good doctor appears to have allies in the paper’s working-class editor Hovstad (Matthew Edison) and bourgeois publisher Aslaksen (Tom Barnett), both of whom have political reasons for wanting an exposé. It is only after the full implications of Stockmann’s revelations become clear that even the journalists back down, leaving him alone with his wife Katharina (Tamara Podemski) and infant son to face the community’s vicious ostracism.
There are so many current parallels to Ibsen’s story it makes you dizzy. Your mind may jump to the environment-spoiling Alberta tar sands and imagine Stockmann’s spa town as Fort McMurray. Or, if you’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, you’ll hear echoes of her argument that our capitalist mindset is the biggest barrier to climate-change action. Or maybe you’ll look at Cobden’s young, headstrong Stockmann, who wrecks his own life in his ardent defence of truth, and think of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. As Ibsen shows us, there’s a thin line between hero and fool.
The play’s climactic town-hall meeting is staged with the house lights up, and the audience’s input is encouraged. At this point, Borchmeyer ditches Ibsen’s text entirely and instead has Stockmann harangue the townspeople (us) with a speech drawn from the controversial French anarchist tract The Coming Insurrection. The knee-jerk response to Stockmann is to side with his defiant belief in the truth at any price—but when it comes to the crunch most of us would be more likely to take the moderate path of Hovstad and Aslaksen, who opt for compromise and guard their self-interests. And Ibsen, to his credit, doesn’t make Stockmann easy to like. As played by a lanky, boyish Cobden, he’s as funny, angry, and naïve as a teenage radical—you both admire and pity him.
Rose has assembled an excellent cast, featuring a pair of formidable villains. Roberts’s silver-haired, silver-tongued Peter Stockmann is a politician to the bone—losing his cool only in his puerile battles with his kid brother—while Richard McMillan is both greasy and gimlet-eyed as Thomas’s shrewd capitalist father-in-law. Edison as Hovstad and Brandon McGibbon as fellow editor Billing are long-haired hipsters whose moral outrage proves about as deep as their demitasses of espresso. Podemski is by turns supportive and exasperated as Katharina, a working mother trying to balance a teaching job and a baby. And Barnett’s perfectly observed performance as a skittish Aslaksen, whose equivocating is both hilarious and all-too-familiar, was particularly enjoyable.
Michelle Tracey’s set and costumes, lit by Jason Hand, are a medley of blacks, whites, and greys—just like the arguments presented in the play. The Stockmann’s apartment looks like a classroom/music studio, with microphones in the dining room and blackboards for walls, on which Thomas occasionally draws scientific diagrams. (Amid the chalk graffiti is a picture of a shark—a comical reference to Jaws, which was partly inspired by An Enemy of the People.) At one point, those walls become oh-so-symbolically whitewashed.
Yes, at times this interpretation of Ibsen is heavy-handed. But it also bristles with the anger and insight that fuelled his plays. The revered Norwegian dramatist, no longer embalmed in ancient clothing and outdated prose, emerges once again as a firebrand who demands to be heard.