Review: An Enemy of the People

Ibsen’s classic is given an unsettling edge and a rock star glamour by Thomas Ostermeier

Venue: Grand Opera House

Date Reviewed: October 28th, 2014

Website: belfastfestival.com

Phone: 1

Wed, Oct 29, 2014, 17:45

   

An Enemy of the People

Grand Opera House, Belfast

****

 

There are two remarkable feats of casting in Thomas Ostermeier’s invigorating production of this resuscitated Ibsen classic for the Schaubuhne. The role of the “enemy”, Dr Thomas Stockmann, Ibsen’s whistleblower of principle, is played by Christoph Gawenda, who moves Stockmann closer to an idealistic grad student. A tousled young maverick who discovers the water supply of his newly prosperous spa town is contaminated, he could just as easily front a rock band – which, in this propulsive production, he often does. In the other title role, perhaps more scintillatingly, “the People” will be played by the audience.

That may sound facile, but here it becomes a cunning manoeuvre, integrating real-world social concerns into the fictitious plotline. In the same way that we hear David Bowie’s Changes first as a progressive anthem, then later as a self-deluding feint, it also distinguishes between politics as a matter of principle and just posture.

Florian Borchmeyer’s new version of the play is unfussily contemporary, dispensing with characters, amalgamating others, and raising the stakes. The Stockmanns are now a young family with plenty to lose, where Eva Meckbach’s Mrs Stockmann frets over a newborn while working as a disillusioned teacher. Stockmann’s brother, Peter – now a suave city councillor played by Ingo Hulsmann – urges a cover-up, to conceal and compromise for the sake of prosperity, and even the boyish blowhards of the press, Renato Schuch’s revolutionary editor, Horvstad; and Moritz Gottwald’s amusing stripling, Billing, crumple easily.

Jan Pappelbaum’s set – a black box on which all scenography is drawn with chalk – recognises that any political context can be sketched around a play that pits an individual against a fickle “majority”. When Stockmann, intimidated and isolated, holds a town hall meeting to reveal the toxic truth, then castigates everything from advertising and social disintegration to political culture and austerity measures, the debate is daringly opened out to the audience.

On opening night, that became an energetic discussion that veered towards self-abasement: “I’m not blaming the politicians; I’m blaming the people in this hall.” Yet the discussion is folded artfully back into the onstage narrative. The play may conclude with a Mephistophelean temptation, where the Stockmanns’ future becomes entwined with the success or failure of the springs, but Ostermeier’s riveting production makes it more absorbingly enigmatic. Ibsen ended with granite conviction (“the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”), but, as the Stockmanns stare into an uncertain future, a more unsettling question hangs in the air. What would you do?

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.