An Enemy of the People review: Drama grabbed by scruff of neck for modern shake-up
From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. Everyone agrees that things can only get worse. This is the truth at the core of Schaubuhne Berlin's production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.
Florian Borchmeyer's updated version, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, transposes the story to modern-day Germany, where disaffected young political radical Dr Stockman lives with his wife and baby. They spend their evenings playing with an Indie band in a casual and chaotic Ikea-styled home, where the edges of the set are chalked on to blackboard walls.
It looks casual, but nothing is left to chance in this intense, high-energy production. The band play Bowie's Changes and Nico's These Days. There's an ironic rendition of Eye of the Tiger halfway through. A tightly knit cast of seven take the story (aptly described as a riff on Ibsen) by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake.
The performance is in German, with surtitles. But don't let that put you off – this is a universal piece of theatre, and it's been right at home wherever it's performed.
Stockman (an excellent Christoph Gawenda) has discovered that the water in the town's local spa – its main visitor attraction and source of income – is contaminated, and he's preparing to step into the spotlight, as the local hero, and reveal all.
But his brother, a town councillor, urges caution. What if the visitors stop coming? It will cost millions to make good the water supply. Better to stay silent and figure out another way of solving the problem. The local newspaper editor agrees. No point in inviting ruin through the front door.
It's here that Ostermeier waves goodbye to Ibsen and turns this story into a play for today.
From hero to zero overnight, Stockman finds the way to the truth is barred. When he calls a meeting to announce his findings, he is barracked and paint-bombed. Shoot the messenger. He loses his job, his home and his future ... unless he cashes in his integrity.
The USP in this production is the fourth act – as Stockman addresses the audience the house lights come on and the drama moves into the auditorium. The issue is much greater than that of the spa. Does selfish individualism run contrary to the common good, asks Stockman. And lots of us have something to say – about bankers, politicians and media bias. "Everything is broken," shouts someone. "We should join together against all this," says another. There's an exhilarating sense of anarchy in the air, as spectators become participants, shouting out their grievances at the way the world has turned out. The cast keep a guiding hand on the reins, but we feel we're in charge.
It's a superbly paced production. Much of Ibsen's original play is junked, but the questions it raises remain untouched.
The lights fade on Stockman and his wife looking at the envelope which contains the ticket back to their previous lives. What would you do?