FringeReview UK 2016
Hugh Boneville makes a return to the stage leading a cast in the first Ibsen at Chichester for six years, directed by Howard Davies with a versatile design by Tim Hatley and music by Dominic Muldowney..
Howard Davies has brought a revival of Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People to Chichester in Christopher Hampton’s fine translation. After some interventionist versions – David Harrower’s at the Young Vic for one in 2013 – it’s a relief to see how the paly hinges – and unhinges the protagonist Dr Stockmann.
Setting the play in the 1940s, the limits of printing hegemony hintis at female emancipation in trouser suits. Tim Hatley’s versatile design, very close to Chichester’s Chekhov season, suggests mostly any time from the 1890s. Dominic Muldowney’s score faintly evokes suitably period film-noir.
It’s been noted it’s the fifth revival in eight years, whereas Hampton realized his 1997 version was only the third UK-produced in the 20th century. Perhaps it’s that whistleblowing’s a hot topic (Annie Machon former MI5 whistleblower contributes a programme essay). The climate of mistrusting those in power would in any case explain this play’s popularity when women characters aren’t as strongly drawn as elsewhere in mature Ibsen, Ibsen taking only a year to write this hurtling rough text.
Dr Stockmann is as his wife avers ‘the cleverest man in town’ and you realize this won’t end well. He’s in fact medical supervisor of the new baths which he’d called into being a spa that’s transforming the town’s fortunes. Except the water supply’s cheaply routed and contaminated. Ibsen himself responding to attacks on Ghosts likening that play to ‘a running sewer’ was clearly out to avenge. Stockmann’s tests are hailed at first by liberal journalist hangers-on Hovstad and Billing, and the printer Aslaksen who pursues everything in moderation quite violently if it threatens small householders. Stockmann somehow imagines he’ll have to turn down a torch-lit procession in his honour. He offers teetotaller Aslaksen a drink, underlining his lack of engagement.
The reality as often, lies in families in this case his elder brother Peter – an equally inflexible William Guminara – who gave Stockmann his job – being mayor, chief of both police and the Bath’s Board. He suborns everyone save Stockmann’s family. Whilst daughter Petra (feisty Alice Orr-Ewing) is her father’s daughter, wife Katrina (warm careful Abigail Cruttenden) with a more nuanced response owns the skills her husband rejects, watching her family’s ostracising: her sons beaten up, her daughter sacked as a teacher. The masterly scene where Peter invades the newspaper office and turns Adam James’ Hovstad and pseudo-revolutionary Billings (Michael Fox deliciously OTT) hums with grim power, not from the rattle of presses.
After Act Three its difficult to see how Stockmann’s plight can be compounded till in a public meeting he manages this superbly himself, where Peter’s labelling his own brother an enemy of the people is taken up by erstwhile supporter Hovstad after Stockmann turns Coriolanus-like and declares the majority always wrong. Chichester citizens and others mobbing about the aisles threatening and shouting is the spectacular coup of the show (as it has often been), here almost upstaged by the sudden shattering of glass panes.
Even then the fifth act when yet again switchbacks in plot call in surprises not least a coup from the adoptive father of his wife Morten Kil (Yorkshire-plain Trevor Cooper). Ibsen reveals here a plotting mastery of raw paradox almost unmatched by him elsewhere. One sees Stockmann’s nature move to further ruin stayed only by the kindly sea-captain Horster (convincing solid oak from Jim Creighton) who’s lost his command but has no regrets sheltering outcasts.
Stockmann‘s a contemporary of Nietzsche then, and something of that superman myth attends his honest naivety, fierce righteousness, intellectual elitism. Hugh Bonneville portrays an energetic man of bonhomie so long as he’s agreed with, generous, yet prone to secrecy, not teamwork, an aristocrat of the mind knowing what’s best. s
Ibsen in fact agreed with Stockmann but knew how to step back and allow such flaws as contempt and the blazing confrontation in Act Four to reveal someone different: Bonneville inflects gruff dismissal, even thwarted divine right, though not that superman snarl of hatred. This humanizes Stockmann, makes him a little more comfortable, less the existential extremist thrusting his family to penury through sheer incapacity to inflect, compromise a little to gain his point. It’s a reading of amplitude and weight, humanizing everyone and allowing the women to breathe, if not the complete shaggy monster that can lurk in this ultimately self-styled Enemy.