Review: An Enemy of the People. Nottingham Playhouse.

An author’s work enters the ‘classic’ pantheon when the themes they address are universal and enduring, and it is only the perspective of time that changes. Hence, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People continues to engage and unsettle today, almost 140 years after it was first written. It is a story whose themes of power, hypocrisy and the personal versus the public, never felt so relevant and raw.

Adam Penford, taking the bit between his teeth as Director in Nottingham Playhouse’s latest bold offering, relishes every moment of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s superbly updated play. In engaging the erudite and intense Alex Kingston in the gender-swapped leading role of Dr Stockmann, Penford further emphasises the relevance of the play’s central themes.

To purchase Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s newly updated script in paperback click image above.

The beautifully striking and atmospheric set by Morgan Large creates a feeling of domestic security in the interiors, whilst the towering forests of the Norwegian town dominate the background and hint at darker forces. A grey green palette is used throughout to lend a sense of brooding foreshadowing, with pops of golden tones and red effectively used to great contrast. Along with Tina MacHugh’s restrained but purposeful lighting, an original score by Frans Bak (The Killer and Doctor Foster), Drew Baumohl’s sombre sound design, and a surprising pathetic fallacy in the second act, we are planted firmly somewhere unknown and edgy.

Lenkiewicz’s updated version of the play sets it in ‘modern day’, without any specific political or social references, allowing it to maintain it’s ‘classic’ feel. Her use of spoken language is particularly striking, very natural and well observed. Ideas are addressed head on, and there is little light relief. The central storyline is unaltered. Dr Teresa Stockmann has recently returned to her hometown and established a spa, providing employment in the local community and taking advantage of the local waters. However, once she discovers the waters are actually poisonous, she wastes no time in taking action to ensure the safety of all concerned. She presumes she will be treated as a hero for saving the community from disaster. In fact, she is accused by the town’s mayor, her brother, of threatening the livelihood of the whole town, with dubious ‘facts’. The media lend their politicised angle on the situation and soon the community is fractured.

Alex Kingston is phenomenal as Stockmann, expressing the energy and passion of this woman with great heart and understanding. The arc this character takes from confident, if naïve, scientist to almost myopic, egotist is astonishing, and at every moment, Kingston is mesmerising. Malcolm Sinclair plays Mayor Peter Mattsson, and Stockmann’s brother, and does so with a quiet steeliness that is unnerving. Cold, calculating and in control, Sinclair’s repetitive buttoning up of his jacket, echoes Mattsson’s straight-laced ideas and need for power. Ulrika Hovstad, the local journalist, is determined to use Stockmann’s findings to help bring down the white patriarchy and Emma Pallant portrays this conflicted character with great subtlety and humanity. Amongst a very strong cast, Tim Samuels as the ‘restrained’ Aslaksen, stands out as the ‘ordinary man of the people’, who is actually as Machiavellian as the rest, nicely underplayed and all the more scary for it. Deka Walmsley, as Stockmann’s husband, shows the domestic conflicts that arise in such circumstances, with barely constrained emotion, and gives us a nuanced performance.

It is fascinating to observe how the ‘truth’ that Stockmann has uncovered becomes twisted and embellished to suit the agenda of every different force within the town. The timely relevance of this play about whistle-blowers and the corruption of power is clear to see, but to have it exposed, in front of one’s eyes, within the space of a couple of hours, is almost breathtaking. Re-writing the protagonist as a modern day woman already shifts the viewpoint: Stockmann’s role as mother is constantly questioned by those around her, where should her priorities lie? It’s unusual to see a woman’s role so motivated by ego, does her passion make us engage more with her or less?

Penford’s sharp direction, his focus on the characters and their relationships, moves An Enemy of the People beyond a political diatribe and inwards to produce something much more personal and revealing. The play becomes a visceral dissection of the human psyche, and the motivations that are at work in our increasingly politicised and divided world. There is something scarily prescient in Stockmann’s words, ‘We’ll see whether mediocrity can win over genius’.

An Enemy of The People runs until Sat 28th Sept 2019

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