Theatre Review – An Enemy of the People (Festival Theatre, Chichester)

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It’s been a few years since I last made it to Chichester’s theatre festival and so it was lovely to go for my first visit of the year this weekend. With only one week left to run, you still have time to see An Enemy of the People, currently playing in the larger Festival Theatre. Having never seen the play on stage before, I was interested in adding another Ibsen to my list.

Set in a quiet Nordic spa town, the story revolves around Dr. Stockmann, the Bath’s medical officer and pillar of the community. Taking pride in doing his job properly, when his tests of the water and soil prove his suspicions – that the baths are a health risk, he is pleased to have made such a discovery, particularly as this proves him right and his brother the Mayor wrong with regards to how the Baths were constructed. With the help of the local liberal newspaper, whose editor Hovstad is more than a little happy about the idea of bringing upset to the wealthy owners and investors of the Baths, Stockmann is determined to bring his findings and the risks the Baths pose, to the public’s attention. He sees himself of the hero of the people by doing so.

1. Hugh Bonneville (centre) & company in Chichester Festival Theatre's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE Photo Manuel Harlan.jpg
Hugh Bonneville & cast (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

However, Ibsen’s play highlights how quickly opinions can change and the risk of speaking out. Indeed, a play concerning the suppression of corruption by those with power and influence, the instinct for self-interest and the idea of whistle-blowing are all incredibly current issues in the world we live in.

The play itself involves a great deal of talk and could have been quite dry to watch. However, Christopher Hampton’s translation and the production itself were very engaging, with some strong performances. I was also surprised how much humour was within the show, much more than any other Ibsen I’ve seen (I go to his plays aware that they are never going to be the happiest!). As this is the only production of this play that I’ve seen, whether this was down to the original text or Hampton’s translation I’m not sure, but it was a very welcome element, which was no doubt enhanced by the actors themselves.

Howard Davies’s production is also perfectly suited to the Festival Theatre’s space, particularly for the later public meeting scene. The decision to stage this within the auditorium, with the majority of the cast within the audience and only the speakers on the stage, added to the atmosphere. The shouts and sense of a whole community turning on one man felt far more authentic than had we the audience simply been observers.

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Adam James (Photo by: Manuel Harlan)

It was also fascinating in that the motivations of Stockmann did not always appear to be clear-cut. He did have a desire to take the moral ground and expose the truths others were trying to suppress. However, when you see the animosity and deep-rooted rivalry between him and his brother, the Mayor and the person leading the opposition to his cause, his motivations could be seen in a different light. Is an element of his motivation to highlight that he was right and his brother wrong? His cause does pose a risk of personal loss to his whole family (his father-in-law’s tannery being a large part of the pollution problem, but also the source of future financial stability for his wife and children), which makes such petty rivalries unlikely to be his sole reason. However it was still an interesting aspect of the production that, for me, added to the complexity of Stockmann’s character.

5. Jonathan Cullen, William Gaminara & Hugh Bonneville Chichester Festival Theatre's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE Photo Manuel Harlan
Jonathan Cullen, William Gaminara & Hugh Bonneville (Photo by: Manuel Harlan)

Now more famous for playing a wealthy aristocrat, it was satisfying to see Hugh Bonneville in a different role. He is very good as Stockmann (his first stage role since 2004). He is the man you see as the champion of the truth, who begins to lose his credibility (and indeed his good name) in his community when his public pleas become an attack on the rights of the unintelligent majority and the intellectually weak. He decision to make such declarations showed his naivety – surely anyone would see that insulting the public’s intelligence and threatening the source of the whole town’s income (the tourism from the Baths) would not be the root to success?

Surrounding Bonneville’s central performance, Adam James (a favourite actor of mine since 2010’s Blood & Gifts) is on fine form as usual as the side-changing newspaper editor, who is swift to drop his support of Stockmann the moment he realizes what he has to lose. William Gaminara is wonderful as Stockmann’s pompous brother, who as Mayor, is smart enough to know how to appeal to the community’s sense of self-interest in order to keep his failings hidden and Alice Orr-Ewing’s portrayal of Stockmann’s daughter is lovely, whose outspoken and independent spirit shines through, as does her admiration of her father’s cause.

It’s unexpected humour and ability to bring Ibsen’s ideas to a modern audience in such an engaging and relevant way meant that this was an enjoyable evening at the theatre for me, but if you were planning to see it, you only have until Saturday to buy a ticket!

An Enemy of the People continues at the Festival Theatre in Chichester until Saturday 21st May 2016. Running-time is 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval). For more information visit the website.

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