Review: An Enemy of the People

Tom Chandler 2 February 2022
Image Credit: ADC Theatre, Daphne Adams

Many Ibsen shows are hard to stage. His dialogue can be cyclical, he has a real love of the rule of three, and he likes to give his characters long, winding speeches. He also has many bigoted opinions in a lot of his plays. The blessing you get with Ibsen, however, is you get an out of copyright script, which you can adapt. Unfortunately, ‘Enemy of the People’ at the ADC this week, didn’t fully seize this opportunity.

The cast was by far the strongest aspect of this production, with an outstanding, intense and colourful performance in the leading role of Dr Stockman by Joe Harrington. His energy was held back by the long, turgid speeches which appeared unedited, but unfortunately even with his and Iona Rogan’s amazing chemistry on stage, they couldn’t drag some scenes to their end quick enough. Harrington and Rogan appear as siblings at war with each other over local politics – the former a whistle-blowing doctor, and the latter a mayor desperate to maintain her towns income of the (diseased) bathhouses it’s famous for. Other notable performances include Alessandra Rey’s Petra, Dr Stockman’s bright and promising daughter, and Zachary Green’s Aslaksen, the town business leader, who chaired the pivotal town meeting with an authority and wit Jackie Weaver wishes she had. Greg Brunt, Frederick Upton and Christian Longstaff also deserve praise for how well they handled what little material they were given at times.

The set, though wonderfully made and very pretty, was unclear in what it was, and was woefully under-utilised in the blocking and direction.

However, what I felt really let the actors down were some confusing, questionable and half-baked design choices and ideas. The archaisms of the script indicated a Victorian setting, the costume hinted at 60s/70s, and then out of nowhere a laptop appeared on stage; the piece did not feel timeless but instead was too full of different times. The set, though wonderfully made and very pretty, was unclear in what it was, and was woefully under-utilised in the blocking and direction. There were hints that the production wanted a childlike aesthetic: stuffed toys were Rogan’s weapon of choice, she had a large clown hat as her mayoral garb, and plastic food was ‘eaten’ before being passed to the next person intact. Perhaps the weirdest choice of this was having all the adults drink alcohol out of beakers. It seems no one told the set or costume designers this was the aesthetic of the show, and, as a result, you have an adult, naturalistic, play alongside these absurd infantile elements thrown in – but with no coherency, and the sense that everyone involved lacked the conviction to fully commit.

On top of it all, there were actual children on stage; having volunteered in a youth theatre myself for a few years, I know the nightmare that is safeguarding and child-labour laws. So, to commit to this must mean it was incredibly important, right? In reality, there was no good reason for them to be there. They had probably a grand total of 6 lines between them, and mostly sat on stage until the adults needed to talk and drop an f-bomb without them around.

Many performers were relegated to the shadows, and most scenes were affected by this in one way or another.

The lighting was at times stunning, particularly during Harrington’s speech to the town, but the fact that there simply was not enough lighting coverage of the stage was troubling and not an issue you see often. Many performers were relegated to the shadows, and most scenes were affected by this in one way or another. The sound was almost non-existent, with not even a pre-show playlist, and during the emotional height of the play, when the Stockman house is wrecked, death metal music came out of nowhere which reduced much of the audience to laughter, despite this clearly not being intentional.

The first act, as dry and long as it is, made us feel sympathetic for Dr Stockman, a man of science being ignored by those who are too focussed on financial success.

I ultimately feel where the show dropped the ball most was on Dr Stockman. Ibsen clearly wants us to empathise with the character, but he displays an arrogance that only a straight, white man could. He cares little about his wife and children, at times being quite callous to his wife’s genuine concerns. We see his arrogance most clearly with attitude towards his sister, a woman who has risen through the ranks of local government, who is not willing to throw that all away. The first act, as dry and long as it is, made us feel sympathetic for Dr Stockman, a man of science being ignored by those who are too focussed on financial success. In the second act, however, Stockman’s revoltingly bigoted underbelly shows itself – his arrogance turns into a superiority complex and hatred of the poor and working class, comparing them to mongrels, saying they are fundamentally, genetically disposed to never have any intelligence.

This kind of talk reeks of eugenics and classism. The choice to have the audience vote in favour of Stockman being declared an ‘enemy of the people’, makes us put a vote behind our feeling that he is an abhorrent man, but then in the very next scene we are expected to feel sorry for him because his house got vandalised. What went from a story about whistleblowing turned into something which was worryingly reminiscent of a far-right tirade on free speech and white supremacy. Whilst the confusion of whether we are supposed to empathise with Stockman or not comes from Ibsen’s own prejudices, the directorial decisions only made this confusion and revulsion worse, rather than either adapting the script to either make Stockman less abhorrent, or instead leaning into the more unacceptable aspects of his nature and not expecting us to empathise with him when he is cast out. Even Harrington’s superb acting could not fix this fundamental flaw in how the character was handled.

‘Enemy of the People’ was an ambitious project, but I question the ADC’s decision behind giving a first-time director an ADC main right off the bat. Perhaps they thought with CUADC funding it, the production would receive a lot of support from the reps on committee, however based on what I saw go on stage, the team seemed to be floundering. The show stands out as having some outstanding performances, which were ultimately let down by an archaic and unadapted script, and the lack of clear directorial direction.

‘Enemy of the People’ by Henrik Ibsen is on at the ADC Theatre until the 5th of February. You can buy tickets here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/an-enemy-of-the-people/

2/5 Stars.