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22 February 2024

Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People: Ibsen for the Amazon age

The director’s world-famous adaptation, now premiering in English in the West End, is a scorching, punk-inflected take on the 1882 play.

By Deborah Levy

Bertolt Brecht penned a perfect, poetically brutal sentence to describe something tragic and true: “War is like love; it always finds a way.” The message in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama An Enemy of the People is that greed will always find a way. Furthermore, he contends that despite our best intentions, Truth is often not our favourite guest at the dinner table, even if some of the guests are liberals who apparently want the best for their community.

The truth-teller at the centre of Ibsen’s play is Dr Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that the water in his town’s therapeutic spa is contaminated. As it happens, the polluted spa (which is making people sick) has also created prosperity for the town. Some of the guests seated around Stockmann’s table earn their livelihood from it. Ibsen was a radical modernist and purveyor of psychological realism and generally considered to be the second-most performed playwright after Shakespeare. This play, which was provocative for its time, examines how an expert, scientific professional becomes “an enemy of the people” when he threatens to expose an ecological human disaster. Will he be silenced by those who seek to protect their personal economic prospects?

Thomas Ostermeier’s and Florian Borchmeyer’s scorching, didactic adaptation – which premiered in Germany in 2012 and has since toured more than 30 cities worldwide – works closely with the original text while shaking off its 19th century dust. It successfully pulls Ibsen’s play out of a small spa town in Norway into a global theatrical debate about corruption, climate emergency and inequality. Ostermeier, one of the most exciting, skilled and innovative directors on the world stage, is also the artistic director of Berlin’s renowned Schaubühne theatre. For this English language premiere, which is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in central London until 13 April, he directs an ensemble of excellent actors, including Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame, who endows the whistleblower, Stockmann, with manic, coldly belligerent charm.

Ostermeier sets the tone of his production with a punk-inflected soundtrack. A substantial essay on post-democracy by the sociologist Colin Crouch is printed in the programme. The set is a grungy, modern family home, its black walls scribbled over in white chalk with anti-mindfulness advice: IF YOU HAPPEN TO RUN INTO THE BUDDHA ON A STREET, KILL HIM. Ostermeier wants us to know this is not a theatre event that is going to prescribe meditation and matcha latte to heal a world on fire.

Gender politics have been mildly updated from the original play, too. Stockmann is pushing his new baby in a pram when the play opens. His schoolteacher wife, Katharina, who unfortunately is mainly there to support her heroic husband, is nevertheless mischievously played with panache by Jessica Brown Findlay. The cast wear hip, casual clothes, except for the joyless, blue-suited conservative mayor of the town, embodied by Paul Hilton with devastating, serpentine guile.

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The mayor also happens to be Stockmann’s brother, so civil war will always find a way, too. When Thomas offers scientific evidence to prove beyond doubt that the spa’s waters are contaminated, the editor of an influential newspaper is eager to publish it. Shubham Saraf gives a tremendously beguiling performance as a journalist who knows he should do the right thing. Yet, like the local townspeople, he comes to realise that it might not be in his own interest to publish the truth. His assistant, who is supposed to be a cool dude (he sings Bowie songs at his desk and can imitate rap) also harbours secret right-wing political ambitions. He is played with just the right tinge of shame and comedy by Zachary Hart. The owner of the newspaper (no editorial intervention, obviously), who also happens to be chair of the landlords’ association, the very people who have become wealthy from the spa, is brought to life by Priyanga Burford’s charismatic, droll and nuanced performance. Meanwhile, to protect his own lucrative job, the mayor conspires with them all to silence the truth and humiliate his brother.

Ostermeier’s production has become internationally famous for its town-hall debate, in which the audience is invited to argue about the ethics of the situation and consider Stockmann’s predicament. This was surprisingly moving and by far the most interesting part of the evening. The good doctor delivers a speech from a podium – the audience is asked to respond. His argument is that the whole world is becoming an Amazon warehouse; there is not a cost-of-living crisis, there is an equality crisis; if we are all in a malaise and feeling glum, knocking back vitamin pills and smoothies is not going to make us feel better. All of this is true, yet somehow the over-familiar, macho delivery of this speech was not that inspiring.

It’s hard to express despair. It took some courage for audience members to speak into the roving mic, especially if they were not the type who love the sound of their own voice. People spoke plainly and with sincerity. The most moving contribution was from a 19-year-old woman who said, “I go on demonstrations and do my best, but I have no hope, and really I just want to run into the woods.”

The play ends with Stockmann losing his job as a doctor, Katharina losing her job as a teacher, both of them eyeing up the shares her factory-owner father has bought for them in the now devalued spa. If there was a lack of emotional depth to the plight of Dr Thomas Stockmann when the corrupt majority turn against him, perhaps it’s because Ostermeier is not that committed to psychological realism. 

The young woman in the audience who confessed to being so flattened and overwhelmed by the indifference to truth from those who profit from the climate crisis that she wants to run into the woods, is a more interesting contemporary protagonist to me. I would like to see a poetically brutal new play that gives voice to that understandable feeling.

An Enemy of the People” is playing at Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until 13 April.

Deborah Levy’s most recent novel, “August Blue”, is published in paperback by Hamish Hamilton in May.

[See also: Anna Burns’s Milkman and the politics of hatred]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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