Long distance warning

Ibsen’s whistle blower brings us worrying news from Norway via Arthur Miller’s America

Declan Conlon as the whistle-blowing scientist Dr Stockmann

Declan Conlon as the whistle-blowing scientist Dr Stockmann

 

An Enemy of the People
Gate Theatre, Dublin
Three stars

Late in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play about a whistleblower whose town turns violently against him, the protagonist considers fleeing Norway for America. His wife isn’t so sure.

“I’d hate to go halfway around the world and find out I’m in the same place,” she cautions. That wry joke in Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation knows that political corruption and parochialism are universal: people are people.

It’s also why Wayne Jordan’s stylish new production can superimpose one society on another – 1950s America on late 19th-century Norway – while lightly inviting us to recognise our own.

As Declan Conlon’s scientist Dr Stockmann excitedly discovers the coastal town’s baths are poisoned, he resembles a horn-rimmed fantasy of “father knows best” before all authority becomes suspect.

Sensationally designed by Paul O’Mahony, with beautifully detailed costumes from Joan O’Clery, Stockmann’s den is a space burbling with family, friends and jazz, where a poster for the new Kirstin Springs spells out a bright future while exposed water pipes hint at something septic. Stockmann’s revelation will threaten the project of his brother, the Mayor (Denis Conway), derail the economy and unbalance the status quo. Just how far is he willing to go for his principles?

The play suggests that social toxins aren’t easily discerned – Bosco Hogan, enjoyably mean-spirited as Stockmann’s father-in-law, even considers “bacteria” to be a ruse – but Ibsen lays everything flatly on the surface.

Characters occupy fixed positions, as unwaveringly good as Stockmann, his wife (a fervent Fiona Bell) or Captain Horster (an endlessly stoic Liam Carney), or dependably hypocritical as Conway’s commanding Mayor, Ronan Leahy’s blowhard radical, Hovstad, or Barry McGovern’s amusingly expedient industrialist, Aslaksen (moderate in everything - including moderation).

Miller is too stiff a playwright to restore conflict to a character’s soul, though, preferring externalised clashes and the drama of proclamation.

The cast do excellent work to suggest greater shades, but Jordan’s boldest decision is actually to make his stage more shallow, pushing the action forward until, finally, a mob spills into the Gate’s auditorium.

It’s a daring gesture to take a play that harangues democracy and then cast the audience as the rabble, but when Conway’s lines about a “third-rate hamlet” that will “live or die by what the outside world thinks of us” meet a caustic chuckle, it all lands close to home.

Who could ever identify with this fabled “mass” or “majority”, though?

Still reeling from negative reaction to his previous play, Ghosts, Ibsen made his hero stand courageously apart from the herd, and Miller, soon to encounter the notorious House of Un-American Activities Committee, took this martyr to his own extremes: “the majority is always wrong!”

Like the waters of Kirstin Springs, such sentiments can be hard to swallow and now that we are as far from Miller’s version as he was from Ibsen’s, a fresher voice might have been more welcome. Then again, the majority of the audience seemed perfectly happy with it.

Until Jul 13