Review: An Enemy of the People, Duke of York’s Theatre

Matt Smith leads a strong cast in Thomas Ostermeier’s production of An Enemy of the People at the Duke of York’s Theatre

“The greatest enemy of truth is the fucking liberal majority”

Iconoclastic German director Thomas Ostermeier’s arrival in the West End comes courtesy of An Enemy of the People, a production that premiered in 2012 but as the Europeans do, has remained in rep in Berlin, a mark of how effective Ibsen can be. Adapted by Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer with dramaturgy by Maja Zade, this is the debut of Duncan Macmillan’s English language version so you do wonder how to accurately attribute anything but suffice to say that Ostermeier directs and also conceived the show.

The spine of Ibsen’s 1882 play remains largely intact. In a vaguely contemporary setting, Thomas Stockmann is a bit of a hippy-dippy sort – a scientist, a new father, a guy who loves knocking out David Bowie covers with his band. But when he’s employed to test the waters of the town’s new thermal baths and discovers that they’re contaminated, he’s set against all the power players who stand to make lots of money from the spa, not least his own brother who is the mayor and with whom relations are already strained.

Speaking to this day and age though, Ostermeier’s version of Stockmann seizes on this as more of an opportunity for personal advancement than true moral certitude and his plotting to make the most of it soon start to unravel. This comes to pass in a bravura sequence which sees the house lights come up and the audience become active participants in a town meeting scene. Posited as a Question Time-style debate, it’s unclear how much is genuinely spontaneous and how much actually scripted but it makes for a striking disruption.

Elsewhere, interventions don’t have quite as much impact. Paintball! A live Alsatian! A kiss that seems significant is forgotten, as is the band. But the intellectual rigour of Ostermeier’s examination of power structures in Western society is bracing as it fully acknowledges the complexities in trying to hold anything or anyone to account. Matt Smith is great as Stockmann, battling corruption and compromise both without and within. Paul Hilton plays off him brilliantly as squabbling brother Peter, though I do wish that the adaptation gave Jessica Brown Findlay’s Katharina something more substantive to work with.

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