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?