Review: Public Enemy, Young Vic

“We want people who know what must change and why”

The phrase ‘timely revival’ is one much abused by reviewers and theatre marketers alike but it is genuinely amazing how strongly the resonances of a piece of writing from 1882 chime in today’s world. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, retitled here as Public Enemy in a terse new version by David Harrower, rails against government corruption, the treatment of whistle-blowers, unscrupulous clothing factory owners and foretells a world of growing ecological and environmental calamity. It is a powerfully compelling tale, cheekily updated to the 1970s here, and one which wriggles uncomfortably beneath the skin.

Stockmann is a principled doctor in a provincial Norwegian town famed for its spa baths but when he discovers that the waters are poisonous and need to be shut down and announces this to the town at large, he is not met with the gratitude and acclaim he expects but rather is ostracised and demonised by the leaders of the town’s society. Chief among these in the mayor but as is often the way in small-town politics, he just happens to be Stockmann’s brother. The battle for public opinion that ensues is then bitterly fought as Stockmann, Ibsen thinly veiling his contempt for the frosty reception of his previous play Ghosts, reacts to becoming the enemy of the people.

Over the course of an uninterrupted 100 minutes, Richard Jones’ production rattles through the play with a liberating sense of freshness, almost cartoon-like in its palette. Miriam Buether’s design is a Scandi-overdose of domestic wares; Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are a riot of 70s colour and shape and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting is inescapably searching, leaving nowhere to hide, not even for the audience in the crucial town hall debate. This is a commanding re-reading of this particular scene, Nick Fletcher’s doctor full of bristling indignance that one sympathises with but soon tipping over into arrogant presumption, and though there may not be quite the resounding sense of a town entirely against this man, instead Jones draws us directly into the debate and exposes our reactions to this deconstruction of democratic ideals.

But the richness of Stockmann as a character and of Fletcher’s stellar interpretation here comes at the expense of a cast of effective supporting players. The other people in Stockmann’s life and in the play at large are just not fleshed out enough to really serve as useful dramatic counterweights, so it is to the credit of actors like Charlotte Randle as his wife, Beatrice Walker as his daughter (a notable debut) and Bryan Dick as a pernicious journalist that they bring a vividness to their performances that lingers in the mind, especially in the striking final image with its slightly terrifying intimation at the path ahead. 

After the huge success of A Doll’s House, the Young Vic have once again proved masters at interpreting Ibsen in innovative and interesting ways and bringing an immediacy to his work that ought to strike a note with many a modern audience.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 8th June

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