Ibsen’s morality play, An Enemy of the People, sees a caring and compassionate doctor risk his life and reputation to save his community from catastrophe only to have the ignorant and indignant masses rise up and condemn him.
He should have seen it coming. Trying to prevent an environmental disaster is one thing. Sounding off like Hitler is another.
Enemy opened last night at on the main stage of Chichester Festival Theatre and it welcomed back to the stage Hugh Bonneville, from TV’s Downton Abbey and W1A, after an absence of 12 years.
And what a treat was in store as he turned in a riveting and thrilling turn as the play’s protagonist.
A riot broke out in the auditorium (Hugh can have that effect). Audience members had trumpets, football rattles and drums sounded inches from their ears, rabble-rousers shouted so hard it was almost impossible to hear the dialogue, and, at one point, the star took to delivering his lines in a gangway. It was all rather jolly.
Howard Davies’ production breathed life into Ibsen. This is an intense, passionate, and sometimes, satirically, told story about the environment, freedom of speech, democracy, corruption and truth.
Bonneville’s jovial and lively country doctor returns to his roots to play a part in the revival of his town with the opening of a health spa which, it is hoped, will bring prosperity and much needed jobs to the area.
But Dr Tom Stockmann discovers that the water feeding the spa – and indeed the whole town – is contaminated to a lethally high level – from bacteria washed down from nearby tanning plants.
He plans to do the right thing and expose the issue, forcing the council to clean up the supply and save the townsfolk.
The whistleblower initially believes he has “the solid majority” behind him, along with the editor of the local newspaper who plans a front page splash.
But the crusading doctor doesn’t reckon on his brother, the dour and priggish Peter, town mayor and a major force behind the building of the spa baths.
He clashes with the GP, delivering a few home truths that the news of the pollution will irrevocably destroy the town, cost jobs, livelihoods and about 100,000 krone to fix – which will have to come from increased taxes.
As soon as the solid majority hear this their support crumbles. Stockman takes to the streets to speak out at a public meeting but his plan goes horribly wrong when he goes off point and he is declared “an enemy of the people.”
Bonneville is bold and charismatic on stage, his idealistic doctor brimming with life, enthusiasm and altruism although more than a little self-righteous. His brother, skilfully played by a bearded William Gaminara (Silent Witness) is dour, pompous and downright deceitful. It’s hard to believe they are related.
Once again the poor old press take a hammering. Adam James’ slimy newspaper editor, Hovstad, is self-serving and fickle, swapping sides, and support, according to which way the wind blows.
There are some deliciously comic characters embroiled in this enviro-drama and none more so than Jonathan Cullen’s Aslaksen, printer and chairman of the Property Owners Association, who learnt his wisdom at the “university of life” and believes everything should be done in “moderation”.
Poor Abigail Cruttenden, as Tom’s long-suffering wife, doesn’t have a lot to do except sweep in and out of scenes. At one point she is told to get back to the kitchen sink while her husband deals with important matters (this brought a loud groan of condemnation from the opening night audience).
Even the daughter, school-teacher Petra (Alice Orr-Ewing) is marginalised in this play, written at a time when women were deemed unimportant, (though it’s an unusual stance for Ibsen who has created some strong female roles in his plays).
I’m not sure I entirely enjoyed the mob rioting around me but there’s no denying that Christopher Hampton’s thrilling version gets total support from the people.
An Enemy of the People runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until May 21.
An Enemy of the People
Ibsen’s morality play, An Enemy of the People, sees Downton’s Hugh Bonneville return to the stage to give a powerful and thrilling performance as a crusading doctor at odds with his community.