They don’t make many like they make Thomas Ostermeier. That he is not on the tip of the tongue of British theatre-goers says more about the appallingly low number of productions that make it across the channel and the limited tours when if the even get here. An Enemy of the People was sold out for its five performances at the Barbican and I am certain if there was the bravery to finance a small tour then people would come. How can people learn what they like if they never get the chance to see anything different?
The glorious thing about watching an Ostermeier production is that while you may not know quite what you will get, you know it will still be a quintessentially Ostermeier affair. For, yes, we are back in the realm of the director as auteur. Cue much huffing and puffing from the comment boards and cue rapturous, and occasionally unthinking, applause from everyone else. An Enemy of the People is the latest to hit the Barbican and follows on from a radical Hamlet that tore down almost every Shakespearian convention and reinvented the play from the grave up.
Ostermeier seems to be a man who will be anything but be dull. He brings his own hyperactivity to the text and energises performances far past what audiences should find comfortable; Hamlet clocked in at 168 minutes without an interval, and An Enemy of the People doesn’t fall far short at 150. Yet the quality can be seen that, despite the ridiculous running time, the audience sat in rare rapt attention, with not a rustle or toilet break to be seen disrupting the action.
An Enemy of the People is not without flaws and there is a nagging suspicion that Florian Borchmeyer commits serious logical fallacies in trying to bridge his adaptation of Ibsen’s text with a modern element that draws on the anonymous 2007 paper, The Coming Insurrection. However these flaws don’t destroy the integrity of the play and should be placed in the context of the vitality of the production and the creation of a theatrical experience that genuinely led to an enforced, and welcome, assessment of my own political values.
That the modern element fails is a shame due to the fact that Ibsen’s own play is so strangely contemporary that it barely needs updating to maintain its resonance. The idea of the small, righteous man standing up against a society that does not want to hear his truth has never gone out of fashion and has grown in stature in recent years, with the Young Vic staging a 1970’s set version last year.
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.
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