Continuing from where he left off with Gogol’s The Government Inspector, Richard Jones’ production of a Public Enemy at the Young Vic delves deeper into small town communities and how the introduction of an outside force – be it the arrival of a government official or a report of a contaminated water supply – inexorably leads to the exposure of the venality and hypocrisy of those in positions of responsibility, and those who are able to exercise power.
Running at a brisk 100 minutes and dispensing with the interval in order to allow the play to build towards a frenetic and frenzied conclusion, David Harrower’s updated text reworks Ibsen’s Enemy of the People into a 1970’s setting. In this he is aided by a superb set design from Miriam Buether and costumes from Nicky Gillibrand that immediately places the location in a Scandinavia of the 1970s.
Updating Enemy of the People has an advantage of other Ibsen plays in that the central plot device feels as relevant today as when it was written. The tainting of the water supply is something that doesn’t seem so unlikely to a society who has seen the Yangtze River turned the colour of blood and minor earthquakes hit Blackpool following adventures in fracking.
Jones’ Public Enemy reminds us once again of Ibsen’s skill of placing characters in the most exquisite of personal dilemmas – forced into positions that expose their venality and corruption to the world. Each passes under the lens of his microscope, and each ultimately fails to take the action that would potentially redeem them.
The character spared this examination is the Merchant Seaman who, one feels, has avoided the corrosive effects of the community by spending so much time outside it. He is the only one to stand by Dr Stockman, and it is not through self-interest but through that vein – also echoed in Dr Stockman’s daughter, Petra – of 1970’s Scandinavian communalism.
There are many plays that aim to expose the underbelly of small town politics but the reason that Ibsen remains relevant after 130 years is his grasp of the crucial difference between holding power and holding authority; as a playwright perhaps only Pinter comes close to matching Ibsen in developing characters for the explicit purpose of exploring the gap between the two states.
In Public Enemy the audience is confronted by Dr Stockman, someone who makes the common mistake of equating power with authority. His position as Doctor and Chief Medical Officer provides him with a platform of authority, and he has a document that has potential to give him great power. However he is undermined by his assumption that it his authoritative position that gives him power and as a result remains blind to the self-interested machinations of those who wield actual power.
These outside interests, the Editor whose newspaper gives him power but who commands little actual authority and the leader of the small business federation who can claim power but has an authority that ultimately resides only in being a mouthpiece for ensuring the continued prosperity of its members, are shown to buckle under the ultimatum given by the Mayor; their weakness is preference for safeguarding their access to power than risk siding with the authoritative but powerless Dr Stockman.
In these exchanges – taking place in wonderfully evocative 70’s settings, be it the Stockman’s front-room, all lurid orange and stripped pine, or a newspaper office that effortless recreates the drabness of Klute or All the President’s Men – we are watching men pincered between their ambitions and their morals.
However Ibsen gives us more than this simple binary choice; just like the original decision to rush through the building of the spa without proper planning, every action has a reaction and what appears to be a simple moral choice unfolds into more complex ethical decision making. The cost of change would have dire consequences – the lack of tourists combined with the cost of the upgrading the piping could cripple the townspeople. Set against this we see Dr Stockman ask the Editor not to allow them to do too much to celebrate his discovery.
A real strength of Jones’ production is to make clear the central flaw in Dr Stockman; that despite his undoubted intelligence on scientific matters, he has a stunning naivety in understanding people. He may have moral right on his side but has no conception that people may choose to think and act differently.
Early in Harrowman’s version there is a telling moment where Dr Stockman shows his brother, the Mayor, his new lightshade and remarks that the light shines straight down. What is elegant to him is seen as extravagance by his brother, and in a classic piece of Ibsen subtext it is hard to avoid the allusion to a man who enjoys finding himself in the spotlight.
In his certainty he fails, or refuses, to take into account that there are many different truths, and that this is the essence of democracy. Harrowman gives Dr Stockman a radically updated village hall speech that is a great piece of set-piece theatre and a gift for any actor. Nick Fletcher is excellent in presenting a man who lets slip the mooring of political niceties and highlights the flaws at the heart of the democratic process whilst self-destructingly showing the condescension of the technocratic elite.
It is slick writing that moves smoothly from the populist denunciation of politicians and their lack of values to a broadening attack on those who vote for them. He argues that the voice of the minority is necessarily the voice of the ‘right’, as the voice of the majority will always contain more ‘stupid’ voices than ‘clever’ ones. It contains the same slick patter and revelatory tone that is reminiscent of everyone from fringe politicians to travelling hucksters selling snake oil.
Of course the voice of the minority is really the voice of Dr Stockman, and it is Dr Stockman who refuses to countenance working with others; at the beginning he will let others work with him, but only in so far as they follow his aims. Any potential solution to the water contamination issue is stymied due to an inability to buy into the democratic tenet of finding a mutually agreeable consensus. Ultimately Dr Stockman does not trust the people to make the right decision, and he would rather rip up his proof than face the possibility of working within a tainted system.
We see exposed in meticulous detail, through Ibsen’s controlled guiding hand, every problem with small-town democracy; venality, nepotism, hypocrisy and factionalism. Alongside this we see a vision of someone who believes that control of the moral high-ground should confer a favoured status.
In Public Enemy we witness the rare sight of a man who the audience would admire advocate a system other than democracy. It is something that would not have seemed so revelatory when it was written and the rise of populist, totalitarian leaders was a generation away, but it is the strength of Ibsen’s plotting and Harrowman’s updating of the text that the audience is still forced to concede that Dr Stockman raises some valid critiques.
It is certainly not a flawless production; some of the minor roles seem a little underwritten or the cast underpowered, which may suggest a problem in compressing Ibsen into this shorter format. There is also a legitimate question mark around whether Dr Stockman’s scientific rationalism should not have given him some foresight into the problems he was building for himself by the actions he chooses to take.
Overall it is an enjoyable evening out and Richard Jones is establishing himself as a very strong director of politically relevant theatre, confident and stylish in blending design with substance. A special mention must also go to set designer Miriam Buether who has created such a definite sense of place and time in Public Enemy and also responsible for the joyously bold The Government Inspector. Buether’s CV also includes Headlong’s Earthquakes in London and Six Characters In Search of an Author and suggests a designer with bold visions in keeping with the inventive directors she is working with.
As a final note on Public Enemy, it is worth pointing to the fact that its 1970’s period setting and sense of a man railing against the system means that it is hard to avoid the long shadow of Network and Peter Finch’s Howard Beale.
Beale’s meltdown is one of the highpoints of the golden age of American cinema and perfectly captures the pent-up rage of those who lived through an era that saw the YIPPIE idealism broken on the back of the bullets and batons at Kent State and eventually see it transformed into rise of the self-expressive individualist culture that led to a 1980’s dominated by a culture in thrall to Reagan and Thatcher.
Network (dir.Sidney Lumet, 1976) ‘Mad as Hell’