An enemy of the people, at the Mumford Theatre
Flintlock Theatre’s attempt to update and sexyify Ibsen’s 1882 drama was partially successful and certainly worth seeing. The theme of the lone voice against the authorities has powerful contemporary relevance. The company of four actors work hard to tell the Norwegian master’s original idea; the revelation that the waters of the town’s lucrative mineral spring are heavily contaminated. The central character of Dr Stockmann, played here as an energetic young woman on a mission and drawing on her knowledge of science to attack the town’s blatant cover up of the scandal. Naturally, the town especially in the guise of the mayor, who also happens to be her brother, is keen to play the whole thing down to protect jobs and income.
Ibsen’s themes are a rich mix of debates that carry into today’s fake news and Brexit world: who has access to the truth, does democracy mean power in the hands of the ignorant and does the protection of jobs always trump what should be morally right?
These great themes were somewhat overwhelmed by the production’s overriding need to be (in their words) ‘fresh and accessible’. Presumably feeling that Ibsen’s 19th century text is dated and inaccessible, they dressed up the two-acter with lots of jolly cavorting, audience banter and flashing computer screens. That said, the famous ‘public meeting’ scene involving the Mumford audience did work well and some of the ticket holders seemed to fully believe that they were in a town council meeting discussing the purity of local spring water.
Matthew Billing convinced as the editor on the local rag who has second thoughts on spilling the beans about the contaminated spa waters. Owen Jenkins worked hardest in a variety of roles and Nazarene Williams, as Stockman’s daughter did her best with few lines and little purpose. Ben Ashton was uncomfortably believable as the manipulative town mayor who knows how to turn on the smile and charm to win over his electorate. Had there been a baby in the auditorium, he would have kissed it for the cameras.
Leonie Spilsbury as Dr Stockmann was perhaps the least effective element of the production. It was nothing to do with her fine acting skills and on-stage energy but casting her character as a feisty young campaigner simply didn’t do enough to show us her own dilemmas. It felt as if she’d been a fearless agitator all her life rather than someone whose eyes had been opened by the self-seeking actions of a powerful elite.
The production was certainly lively with some pleasing bits of theatricality such as some very visible sound effect props and a truly marvellous evocation of a mob on the rampage taking revenge on the windows of the person named by the press as ‘an enemy of the people’. It is amazing what you can do with tissue paper and a bunch of keys! Clearly aimed at winning new audiences for old Ibsen the show was certainly full of spark, energy and fun. Setting the action in 2018 has its pluses and minuses (can such a secret really be kept in our social media age?) but the final moments of the play, when Stockmann and her teacher daughter have been social outcasts had power and conviction.
Behind the entertaining gloss the production did open up all sorts of questions about our society: who are our enemies and just who do we mean by ‘the people’?