Theatre: An Enemy of the People at the Schaubühne

Photo: Arno Declair

Photo: Arno Declair

Having recently seen Public Enemy at the Young Vic in London, I was keen to see what Berlin’s famous Schaubühne would make of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play.

Ibsen’s play is about a spa town’s chief medical examiner, Dr Thomas Stockmann, who discovers that the town’s baths are toxic. He attempts to publicise his findings, expecting praise, but ends up being labelled an enemy of the people by his mayoral brother, the town’s businessmen, and ultimately the town’s people, who all profit from the baths, leading Stockmann to declare that the majority is wrong, and the public itself is the enemy.

Thomas Ostermeier’s production brings the play to a modern setting.
Indeed, Ibsen’s play could be a mirror for our times of economic crises and environmental issues such as fracking.

However, giving the play a contemporary setting is problematic; with social media and the Internet, it is hard to see why Stockmann is battling to get his findings published in the town’s small paper and calling town meetings when he could achieve his goal with the click of a button.

While, on the one hand, the play does not address its modernity enough, it goes too far in its re-writing of Stockmann’s climactic speech at the town meeting, littering it with contemporary references from Ritalin to the economic crisis to sports shoe slogans. It’s too much, causing the scene to lose its power and the play to lose its original unity.

Furthermore, in the town meeting scene, the lights in the auditorium are turned on and the audience are encouraged to interact in the debate, resulting in a loss of tension and momentum when it should be at its highest. I can appreciate the idea, but inevitably, the people who voice their opinions at these things are either schoolkids or opinionated idiots and their words becoming part of the text causes further fragmentation.

Stefan Stern, who plays Stockmann, seems to completely step out of character during this entire session, before taking up his impassioned speech once again, thereby dissipating the play’s energy and obliterating our suspension of disbelief.

The decision to portray Stockmann as a young man in this production is interesting. He only has a baby (which we see at the beginning of the play, and then mysteriously disappears, never to be seen or mentioned again), not a grown daughter and two sons as in the original. This makes his naivety understandable, but Stern lacks the youthful zeal one would expect. Nick Fletcher, who played Stockmann in The Young VIc’s production, had more energy, and that production rose to a frenzy, whereas this play started well and petered out towards the end.

An Enemy of the People is on at the Schaubühne until December.

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