Thursday, 26 September 2013

An Enemy of the People

Albany theatre, Deptford
25 September 2013

One of the most unlikely attempts at Stockmann's great anti-people speech, from Steve McQueen. 

Community pettiness and NGO arrogance equally lampooned in this updated production... almost.

Rebecca Manson Jones’ loose adaptation of Ibsen’s drama retains the spirit rather than the letter of the original, except in the final scene. She sensibly suggests this supposed comedy could be better called ‘the do-gooder’ in English.

The upright Dr Stockmann is here a former NGO campaigner, bringing ethically sourced palm oil to a Cornish village. The up-to-the-minute text, larded with references to tweeting and crowd sourcing, requires some barely plausible contortions to remain close to the original – the Stockmann siblings want to create a rival to Brighton in Cornwall, the local newspaper becomes a symbol of the end of the print age, and so on.

This updating doesn’t significantly alter the work, though I’m not sure Sarah Malin’s convincingly professional campaigner, working late on a media release, would genuinely encounter a ‘lightbulb moment’ in the great community hall speech scene.

If there is humour in this comedy, it is bitter, and at the expense of the idealistic Stockmann, whose family suffer as a consequence of his (in this case her) stand for the future, which achieves nothing in the present and indeed climaxes in a shocking denunciation of the rest of us.

Though right, at least in the beginning, during her great anti-democratic speech she sets herself against almost everyone, rather as Brand did in an earlier drama, and an audience that is paying attention should certainly question its sympathy with her.

This production brilliantly recreated the atmosphere of a community meeting, and asked the audience to vote on whether Stockmann was indeed a public enemy.

The majority sided with her, which is itself quite disturbing. Presumably we voted for her earlier self, the one Ibsen and Manson Jones succeed in making sympathetic, heroic. But are we really agreeing with her that we are upsided cockroaches with our legs twitching?

Ibsen surely knew better when he had his community reject Stockmann. Here, the final scene was a skilful piece of montage conveying an overall sense of hope. Only here did the adaptation differ from Ibsen in spirit, and I think for the worse. His version, with Stockmann confident but ruined, is more challenging.

Unlike many other great dramatists, Ibsen’s endings are important, for he drives us towards them with all the mechanical skill of the nineteenth century well-made play. So changing the tone of his endings is a serious mutilation; nor was the risk one worth taking here.

Aside from this limitation, everything else in this production worked wonderfully well. The Stockmann family was presented so naturalistically I thought the actors must be related. Elizabeth Elvin, in the role of the representative of the town’s small businesses, stole every scene she was in, but every cast member seemed to embody their role.

If only his ending could be preserved, I can’t imagine a better updating of Ibsen’s work: this should be seen.

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