Richard Jones's new production of Ibsen's Public Enemy (or An Enemy of the People as it's more usually translated) is in a sharply version by David Harrower that pares the play back to reveal its fury and topicality. Ibsen wrote the play after the reception of Ghosts in 1881, which was denounced as indecent, obscene. Ghosts, from our vantage point, looks like a rather moral play which is intent on revealing the scandalous secrets of bourgeois life and condemning hypocrisy on the way. Ibsen usually wrote a play every two years but Public Enemy arrived only a year after Ghosts, perhaps saying something about the urgency and anger in which he wrote it.
Public Enemy concerns a well-liked Doctor in a small Norwegian spa town who discovers that the water system that feeds the spas is diseased. He is mocked, dropped by his former friends and collaborators; the townspeople turn against him and he ends the play a firm enemy of democracy and insists that the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone. It's clearly a way of talking about his own experiences becoming a victim of public opinion for trying to tell the truth.
Jones/Harrower's version emphasises this by staging the fourth act - in which Stockmann attempts to hold a town hall meeting - very directly addressing and hectoring the audience. The tone becomes very contemporary and Harrower's script puts us in mind not on nineteenth century corruption but twenty-first century. The crassness of the tabloid press, the rise of Nigel Farage, the venality of the Liberal Democrats, they all seem to swim into view as Stockmann denounces democracy as the rule of the stupid.
That act was, for me, the most successful of them. Successful in two ways: first, it gave a sense of how caustic the play must have seemed when it first appeared; the brutality of the argument, the clear sense of an author breaking the fourth wall to berate the audiences who scorned him. It actually has a feel of Look Back in Anger about it, the author's voice overwhelming the form of the play to thrilling effect; second, in Harrower's version, we get a very interesting move from righteous indignation, social critique, to something near fascism. Eventually, Stockmann is ranting that we should all be exterminated. Stockmann moves, without explanation, from the idea that the majority is always right to the equally foolish position that the minority is always right (how would that work?) and one senses a retreat that may be protective, but may also be fascistic or just mad. Certainly at the end of the play, with Stockmann telling his family that the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone, Jones did not direct the family to applaud his sentiment; instead they seem amused, uncertain, faintly embarrassed by his attempt to turn defeat into victory.
An Enemy of the People always has this ambivalence, I think. In Ibsen's version of the town meeting, there are lines for audience members; when they come to voting there's a drunk man who wants to vote yes and no and I've always rather agreed with him. The play is both a terrific vehicle for Stockmann/Ibsen's anger but it's also a pretty forensic analysis of the traps and contradictions of both men's positions. Stockmann's belief that you should simply be able to express the truth as you understand it, using the best evidence, is admirable in many ways but it is also naive about the reality of political and commercial interests and how they can combine to distort any means of communication. Those are the forces that Stockmann met and of course Ibsen met them too when he published Ghosts. But the means of communication are also complicated by the theatre. What Stockmann doesn't realise in his attempt to speak directly and transparently to the public in the Rousseauian open air of his meeting is that it can be - in fact, has to be - stage-managed; and because he doesn't do the stage managing, his political enemies do it for him. Ultimately, he is goaded into making the incautious statements that lead to his downfall. The ambiguity of the final position of the play is that he seems to have been trapped into developing his new attitude to the world by his opponents. This relativistically undermines the value of speaking the truth as one understands it.
This has some significance for Ibsen too. The play seems to both celebrate the socioclasmic force of Ghosts but also acknowledge a certain complexity. It's a complexity that disrupts Naturalism itself, which is caught between the scientific clarity of its truth-telling and the material and cultural mediations of its theatricality. The movement of Public Enemy, well brought out in Richard Jones's production, is from the first act in which truth is brought out from the depths into public space (there's a letter, opened offstage, brought out into the family, and from there will be launched to the world) to the reverse structure of the final act, in which the windows are broken and the family have retreated to the house: the public space has invaded the private, indeed even the privacy of Stockmann's mind. Ibsen's next play is The Wild Duck, a beautiful play which centrally (and unresolvedly) debates whether you should tell the truth, whatever the consequences, a view that has another brilliant drunkard as its antagonist, the kindly amoral Dr Relling.
Does Richard Jones's production work? Yeah, kind of. It zips along and captures the political argy-bargy of the play. It fully comes alive from Act 3 in the printer's office; this is perhaps because Richard Jones's cartoon style doesn't quite mesh with the domestic relationships in the first two acts. But this may smooth out during the run. Jones is always big and bombastic and loud so as soon as we're in the public sphere, things work better. Miriam Buether's set is a seventies, stripped-pine open-plan scandinavian Bungalow and, frankly, is distractingly ugly but does convince us that the story continues to speak to the contemporary era, if the seventies count as contemporary. David Harrower's version is tighter than Ibsen's but looser in its range of references and the savagery . I slightly felt it was at the expense of the characters but that's hard to distinguish from the effects of Richard Jones's day-glo production.
Nick Fletcher captures both Stockmann's charisma and his naivety, turning from hero to enemy as much through his own efforts as the efforts of his opponents. For me the real heart of the play was Charlotte Randle as Mrs Stockmann who seemed to me to give the production a moral authority and emotional seriousness that it otherwise lacked.