Ibsen's bitter 'comedy' loses much of its shockingly direct impact through a misguidedly understated production.
When the adaptation, director and star all conspire to ruin a piece, I am tempted to think it may be that I was mistaken in my high opinion of the original.
On reflection, though, I think rather that the production is simply mistaken, failing to grant sufficient power to the drama. Overall, while the updated set is bright, the acting is too low-key.
The critical scene is Dr Stockmann's rant to the assembly, of course really the theatre audience itself, though I wonder how many of us are willing to accept the speech. It is the most direct assault on an audience in any major drama, excepting perhaps Shakespeare's Timon, and I find it deeply uncomfortable.
This Nietzschan diatribe against our slave selves and society makes me squirm, for I find the argument hard to refute, yet it seems to lead to autocracy or worse. As Stockmann exorts us to transcend our values, we ought to be thinking just how unlikely that is.
I'm not sure any audience is really willing to hear this, but thankfully Ibsen was too great a dramatist to readily identify with his hero. So there are several ways a director can cushion the blow. Perhaps Stockmann has been driven mad by the town's persecution? Or, in the following scenes, he can seem self-ob sessed, the culmination of his earlier character? Or a connection can be made between his earlier, easygoing nature and his new 'strength'?
Of all these options, one of the worst would be to underplay the great denunciation, to have the doctor chummily engage with the audience as if he were a poor standup comedian. Yet somehow this is what adaptor David Harrower, director Richard Jones and actor Nick Fletcher contrive.
The production also highlights a weakness in the original, where Stockmann's speech moves without warrant from specific criticisms to bitter generalisations worthy of Timon. Part of the problem here is Harrower's editing, which reduces the sense of gradual erosion in the doctor that is present in the original.
After the great speech, which has an impact even when traduced as here, Jones emphasises the self-obsessed side of Stockmann, a reasonable decision, but one that further weakens his criticisms of us.
The final moments, however, are very effective, partly because either Jones or Charlotte Randle moves one of Stockmann's lines to his wife, then proceeds to give her a potent half-laughing half-crying response to her husband's pathetic final repeated claims of strength.
Actually Randle gives a great performance throughout, absolutely riveting. Her character is ambiguous in Ibsen, and could be portrayed as either critically supportive or as a desperate mother forced to stay with her impossible husband. Randle opts for the latter.