More than a century after its first performance, Henrik Ibsen’s Public Enemy (or An Enemy of the People as it’s better known) remains a play so relevant it’s tempting to think it has been updated for 21st century sensibilities: a scientist discovers that the town spa – the lifeline of the local economy – is polluted. Financial interests, corruption, betrayal and hypocrisy combine for an explosive mix of public and private tragedy. The human nature at its more complex, the attraction of the play is obvious.
For the longest time into the Young Vic production of Ibsen’s play (directed by Richard Jones in a new version by David Harrower), I was unconvinced by its approach. Placed somewhere between a Mickey Mouse comic strip and a 60s american series, the good guys had wide smiles, the bad guys had tiny eyes and everyone was stomping around. It was Ibsen with attention deficit disorder, the richness of the play crashed. But wait, it’s not over yet. Two thirds into the performance, the story was pushed to its limits, the production stepped out to the stalls and at the same time found its purpose. It wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t small, but for the last half hour, it was sublime.
Nick Fletcher, in the role of Dr Stockmann, was in tune with this approach: part cartoon part caveman for much of it, he eventually stepped up to the tragic madness of the role magnificently. Darrell D’Silva committed to the Mayor’s villainous persona with gusto. Best of all, Niall Ashdown as Aslaksen brought animation and vivid presence to the bland stillness of the small minded. His values “good sense and sobriety above else” are an open invitation to the audience, and the production, at its best, cracked open the ugliness that hides behind.
Aesthetically, this world sits somewhere between the 70s tv series of The Prisoner, the Von Trapp family crossing the Alps and Tin Tin. Someone described it as visually ghastly, which is true as long as the word is used as a description and not as a value judgement.
The production, even through its conventional narrative, is uninterested in the rules of storytelling and its careless, blow-a-hole-through-the-middle approach is irresistible. If it doesn’t work all the time, we – the audience – are too fired up to care.