Edinburgh Fringe 2016
A modern reworking of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People that transfers its themes of corruption, media control and political power to a visually impressive contemporary setting.
The first thing you notice on entering the theatre is the giant, semi-transparent cube taking up nearly the full performance space. This is the setting for En Folkefiende, a modern adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (En Folkefiende is the name of the play in the original Norwegian), which contrary to what the name might suggest, is in English.
The play’s themes of whistleblowing, environmental pollution, transparency and corruption in public office, trust in experts, the pragmatics of economic development and control of the press and public opinion have very strong contemporary resonance, making it ripe reinterpretation, and this is a self-consciously contemporary production.
The story focuses on two siblings – in the original two brothers, but in this version a brother and a sister – who are involved in a project to develop a local spring into a spa that will bring money and jobs into the town. Elder brother Peter Stockmann is the mayor and the main instigator of the spa project, while his sister, Tom, who is about to be appointed to the board of the spa, is a doctor and scientific researcher.
When Tom discovers a potential health hazard relating to the water in the spring, she is determined to do the right thing and let everyone know so it can be dealt with, but that means going head to head with her brother and others in the town who have a strong interest in the spa going ahead no matter what.
Visually En Folkefiende is pretty slick. What really makes this production stand out is the set, which is dramatic and modern. As well as having visual impact, the cube is used cleverly. Opaque while not directly lit, when illuminated becomes visible as a room, giving the audience a sense of voyeuristic detachedness as they look through the transparent walls and listen to private conversations.
Meanwhile, the actors who are not involved in the scene skulk around in the darkness outside the cube, conveying an ominous sense of potentially threatening others waiting to pounce. And the secretness of a secret meeting is emphasised by being the only scene to take place outside the box.
It also gives the advantage of removing the setting from a particular place. It could be any town in any Western European country, particularly now we all have the same Ikea furniture.
This clean, modern look is accompanied by loud rock music and well thought-out lighting, which just fall short on a couple of occasions. The music, a little on the loud side throughout, in my opinion, drowns out the singing of the actors as they form a chorus, so you can’t hear the words, while a couple of times the drummer sitting behind the cube is lit up along with the set.
Brad Birch’s script is a condensed version of original with one or two changes. Tom Stockmann and Hovstad, the editor of the local paper, become female, while Tom’s wife is now Chris, a househusband. It is a little strange, though, that Hovstad is not given a first name, since women don’t usually refer to each other by their surname.
These swaps add an extra gender dimension to the relationships. We see Peter Stockmann ‘mansplaining’ to his sister how the real world works, while in the interactions between Tom, Hovstad, Peter and newspaper owner Aslaksen the more senior roles are held by two men.
The dynamics of the gender and power could have been brought out more strongly though. Peter and Hovstad both come across as less senior than their jobs might suggest. Peter seems like he might be just a young councillor or a member of council staff than the most powerful man in the town, while Hovstad behaves more like a reporter on the paper than its editor.
Birch has also not quite departed from Ibsen enough to contemporise all the details. The idea of healing waters and a spa seemed strangely anachronistic in contemporary setting, with the mention of the town becoming another Karlsbad very obviously 19th century. An equivalent current issue such as a housing development on polluted land, energy generation project or even a more modern spa resort could have given this a more powerful current political resonance.
There is also a sense of this play being a longer work that had been chopped to fit into an hour’s Fringe show. It seems to end very suddenly when it felt like there should be more to come and there’s a sense of elision throughout that’s actual highlighted by an audiovisual TV interference effect where bits of conversation are omitted.
En Folkefiende is enjoyable and visually appealing, but it could be even better with some further development of both the script and the characterisation.