Wednesday 20 March 2024

An Enemy of the People

Duke of York’s, London

2nd March, 2024, matinee

Drain the swamp

Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882) premiered at Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2012. Since then, it’s played at theatre festivals across the globe and has even been remounted by other directors. It’s now in the West End starring Matt Smith as Dr Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the local baths trying to convince the townspeople that the water which feeds the spa (the town’s main income stream) is polluted. In a production which blurs the line between fictional drama and political reality, Ibsen’s enthralling play is made even more engaging. But in a production which perhaps foregrounds the satire, however rousing and provocative Ostermeier’s staging is, can it really inspire change?

As often is the case with Ibsen, the conflict and the stakes are clear. Dr Stockmann’s research has found the baths’ water supply has been poisoned by the local tanneries which has led to some bathers becoming ill. It’s his duty, both professionally and morally, to report the matter and ensure his recommendation of closing the baths is enacted. But his brother Peter (Paul Hilton), the town’s mayor, is adamant he should keep schtum. Addressing the issue would take time and money, driving tourists away, closing local businesses and mongering fear. But Stockmann ploughs on, pinning Peter’s indifference on his cantankerous nature and sibling rivalry. Stockmann has the truth on his side, and that’s good enough for him. He wins his friends over and initially gets the media on his side. But this doesn’t last long before the town ostracises him. Led by his brother, Stockmann’s science is undermined, his ardour perceived as querulousness, and his intellect seen as elitism.

As Stockmann, Smith is affable, persuasive and shows the doctor’s weaknesses – he’s a fine orator but can slip into antagonistic grumbling. Also excellent is Hilton, always acting his brother’s superior. He is supercilious and pernickety, wiping the furniture before sitting down. The way he drags out the word ‘blog’ at the patronising suggestion that Thomas will write a blog post about the water (who would lower themselves to such a thing!) is telling. Together, they quarrel like children (at one point, after a physical fight, they amusingly mirror each other as they run their fingers through their hairstyles). The mayor is a corrupt leader who favours lies, forfeiting truth and integrity for reputation and profit. His strength-in-numbers approach soon overpowers Stockmann to the margins of society. Ibsen is clearly interested in the role of truth in society and the nature of lies in public life. It’s a prescient play and you soon find yourself getting wrapped up in this central division.

I was interested to read that Amy Herzog’s adaptation for the current Broadway production (which opened this week and stars Jeremy Strong) has cut the role of Stockmann’s wife but has instead made the daughter a larger role, and with more agency. But in Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation, Stockmann’s wife (played by Jessica Brown Findlay) is a key part of the drama. As the play opens, we get a glimpse of their enlightened lives: along with friends, they eat together, sing together, and play together. This is perhaps Ostermeier’s way of showing, as referenced in a programme note, the bourgeois class surviving in global capitalism. A picture-perfect modern family, juggling work and looking after a baby, invested in the arts, socially conscious, and striving for Utopia. But all of this is what Stockmann faces to lose. Jan Pappelbaum’s set and Natasha Jenkins’ costumes create a stark, modern aesthetic. Chalkboard walls line the stage, onto which actors write changes in the time setting. One of those allies that Stockmann loses is Priyanga Burford (who, along with Hilton, has been nominated for an Olivier Award) as the newspaper’s owner. Concerned about the role her paper might play in causing dissent, we trace her switch from supporting Stockmann to denouncing him.

In an electrifying scene set in the town hall, the audience becomes the townspeople for a lively, engaged debate (the house was packed when we saw it, people standing adding to the feeling of a mass of concerned citizens). This interplay of the two worlds sees the drama transcend the proscenium into the reality of the auditorium and vice versa. The aim of Stockmann’s diatribe wanders, the water supply just a symptom of a society that no longer cares. It’s a fierce and unrepenting speech in an English translation by Duncan Macmillian which is contemporary without being too on the nose (other than an earlier reference to the Post Office Horizon scandal). Burford, as moderator, opens up the floor to the audience. I imagine the quality of responses varies at each performance. At the matinee we saw, I couldn’t help but feel a couple of the participants fixated on Stockmann’s reference to our overreliance on Amazon – this surely was just an example of modern society’s problems, not Stockmann’s main focus. But then one man near us in the Upper Circle put his hand up to speak. On being handed the mic, the auditorium fell silent as he told the story of his daughter being killed in a road incident over 15 years ago. He and his wife’s campaigning for better safety measures have largely not been listened to by the government. He spoke passionately, articulately and with purpose. And that’s something that Dr Stockmann isn’t always able to do.

In a fascinating programme interview, Ostermeier discusses theatre’s ineffectiveness at enacting change, but this blurring of the lines is a way to give the audience courage to become political activists. However, I fear, no matter how true the audience’s intentions are, this is flawed. From the security of a West End theatre where you have the option to order Prosecco from your seat, how politically engaged are we? If people are paying up to £200 per ticket, how accessible is this debate? But Ostermeier is also savvy to know that political art that affords you credibility is marketable in commercial theatre.

Following the town hall scene, there is a restlessness in returning to the world of Ibsen’s play. The house lights lower and the debate is abruptly halted when Stockmann is pelted with paint by protestors, a physical sign of the consequences of his actions. A shout out must go to Pippa Meyer’s stage management team for what must be quite the clean up after each show! Cleverly, Ibsen mixes the personal into Stockmann’s dilemma. The owner of the tanneries is his father-in-law (a brusque Nigel Lindsay, often accompanied by an Alsatian) who changes his will so that his shares in the spa go to Stockmann and Katharina. Faced with being kicked out of their home, unemployed and people throwing bricks through their windows, they face a dilemma. With their financial fate in their hands, do they continue to advocate for the truth or follow the crowd? Our complicity in the earlier scene has a lasting effect, prompting us to reflect how far we’d let our own ideals be tested. Can theatre solve society’s big problems? No, not necessarily, but then again neither can Dr Stockmann. Even if facts are on his side.

An Enemy of the People plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 13th April. For further information please visit

Zachary Hart, Jessica Brown Findlay, Matt Smith and Shubham Saraf in An Enemy of the People. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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