“If we took a vote now, whose side would you be on?”
The works of Henrik Ibsen are often cited as some of the greatest committed to paper but though his plays are frequently performed, they are rarely adapted, seldom excised from their 19th century Norwegian settings to explore how they might resonate in a more contemporary context. David Harrower had a go at putting Ibsen into the 1970s with Public Enemy for the Young Vic earlier this year but Rebecca Manson Jones has brought the same play – An Enemy of the People – bang up to date with this new adaptation which is now playing at the New Diorama Theatre after a tour of London and the South West of England.
She places the play in a modern-day but fictional small town on the Cornish coast – Porth Kregg – which is finding its way out of economic depression through a co-operative owned health spa, run by the Stockmann siblings. But when the ethical business ethos of one is compromised by the environmentally unsound supplier found by the other, the convictions of all concerned are challenged as the whole community is forced to identify what they consider to be more important – the health of the planet versus the weight of their purse. And it’s a question that we as the audience are also asked to contemplate, in a way that shapes the play itself.
The play does take a little time to set up its conceit, the opening scenes of issue-driven debate a little too broad to connect intimately with the overload of information which extends to handouts being given as one takes one’s seat. But as the pieces begin to settle and the key characters emerge in well-defined relief, Manson Jones’ adaptation casts a magical spell which drives it through to its multiple-choice ending. Sarah Malin’s vibrantly charismatic Thomasina – recently returned from doing ‘good’ in Africa – is a compelling ethical champion and Rupert Holliday Evans is the perfect foil as her pragmatically-minded, small-town politician brother, eventually in the opposite corner.
The post-interval Town Hall meeting where the Co-operative gather to thrash out their response to the crisis is excellently conceived – additional performers scattered throughout lending a ramshackle energy that frequently feels thrillingly on the verge of being out of control. And as we are all asked to vote on the proposed motion, the finale is guided by our response with two possible endings on the cards, the ensemble thus showing great flexibility but the playwright also demonstrating to us the difficulties of maintaining utopian democratic ideals in face of contrary public opinion.
There’s something exhilarating about the freedom with which Manson Jones operates here. Devotees of Ibsen may cavil at the liberties taken but they never feel superfluous – Malin more than justifies the gender-swapping of the lead character with a sensational performance and she reinvigorates the sibling tension with her Mayor brother beautifully. The fractured narrative of our particular ending felt powerfully persuasive too, making this an adaptation of Ibsen well worth catching.