There is a certain power to An Enemy of the People. A power which has sometimes overflowed the bounds of the theatre. The famous instance would be its premier in St Petersburg on the evening after the 1905 massacre in which the Tsarist forces murdered a thousand striking workers in a nearby square. During the final act Doctor Stockmann’s words on fighting for freedom so moved the audience that they flooded the stage embracing and shaking the actor’s hand much to the surprise of the actor himself.
Times have changed, and so have the political circumstances in which we live. And so, wonderfully, the director and adaptor Rebecca Mason Jones has updated the play so that it can retain this raw energy which so roused its first audiences. Instead of 19th century Norway we are in 21st century Britain; instead of a medicinal bath house being the center of the story, we have a cooperative spa producing products made from sustainably sourced palm oil; the Doctor is changed from a pompous male preacher to a potty-mouthed female fire-brand.
Another inspired addition is a good measure of immersive theatre. When you walk into the theatre you are greeted by various members of the Porth Kregg community and workers at the cooperative offering you beauty products and explaining the ethical production of palm oil in Indonesia. In the halftime break you’re leafleted by supporters of the two different town factions and in the second half are asked to vote for one side or the other.
The culmination of this audience and actor inclusion is the beginning of the second half, a comically observed town meeting, in which actors distributed in the crowd argue over the right course of action for the cooperative and the fate of the town. Sitting there, listening to the rantings of the Doctor, played by Sarah Malin with suitable confidence and lack of care, and the concerns of the citizens flying in from all sides, even I was moved to vote—this despite having been duped by the Liberal Democrats at the last elections.
And this is perhaps the crux of this immersive interpretation. We, the audience, are asked to become part of a citizenship, to take responsibility for the actions of our corrupt politicians and those in power. Just as An Enemy of the People was first written by Ibsen as a protest against the supposed ignorance and lack of care by the general public, we the public are now forced to care, forced to question and take action. There are of course limitations to this, which is borne out by the paucity of options; a corrupt Mayor or an elitist Doctor.
Our choice on that evening established the outcome of the play. I imagine that either way we had voted it would have turned out suitably depressing. However this final scene was weak, and completely ignored the final act of the original. Perhaps in the end, asking the audience to decide the outcome meant that the play could not have its own opinion which is a real loss. Instead of the incorrigible ravings of Dr Stockmann which roused the people of St. Petersburg in 1905 we are left with vague reflections and phantasmal characters
However, the poor ending cannot take away from the overall enjoyment of this entertaining and imaginatively experimental adaptation. There is little wonder that it is the first UK production of Ibsen to win the prestigious Ibsen Scholarship.