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A CurtainUp London Review
An Enemy of the People
Written in response to the moral outcry at the elliptical hints of syphilis in Ghosts, Ibsen used An Enemy of the People to rally against the mediocre opinion of the masses, the manipulation of the media and the hypocrisy of a cowardly, selfish society. The scenario remains scarily applicable to twenty-first century society and could plausibly happen today. When a doctor discovers his town's lucrative baths are infected and dangerous, the community prioritises mammonism over honesty or safety and seeks to conceal the profit-threatening findings. While the disease and pollution quickly assume symbolic significance, the doctor and his family are ostracised and left destitute, but not before he is used as a pawn in the town's political fissures.
Jason Southgate's clever set design is thematically apt and subtly supports the play's issues. Heavy Victorian furniture and period costume-clad characters are situated within a pine structure which resembles a new flat-packed Ikea shed. Thus we see the superimposition of the town's civilization upon the flimsiest of foundations. An open pipe of still, stagnant water flows towards the set, with pages from the doctor's damning medical report floating uselessly. Moreover, the claustrophobically low ceiling helps promote a sense of the parochialism of the town's selfishness.
Greg Hicks is full of strained energy and integrity as the innocent idealist Doctor Stockmann and manages to portray the moral texture of this flawed hero without alienating the audience. Egoistic and positively Sophoclean in his refusal to compromise, he may embrace his lonesome martyrdom but he remains true to his principles under the severest pressure. He receives superb support from an able cast, including Christopher Godwin as his brother the mayor whose sibling tension turns into bitter enmity, Jim Bywater as the pragmatic printer Aslaksen, Fiona O'Shaughnessy as his freethinking idealist daughter Petra and Sean Campion as the politically disinterested sea captain Horster.
In spite of the polemical impetus, this production navigates the social indictment carefully and successfully, so that it never feels didactic or like a one-sided rant. This difficult balance is largely due to Rebecca Lenkiewicz's excellent new translation. Urgent and powerful, the dialogue sounds contemporary while avoiding any glaringly modern anachronisms. Dialectical without undermining the hero's righteousness, this is a potent telling of one man's brave yet ultimately powerless assault on an endemic moral miasma.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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