Public Enemy, Young Vic, London – review

The Young Vic has a special line in putting classic plays through the mincer and producing something startling and fresh. We’ve recently had Benedict Andrews’ extraordinarily irreverent Three Sisters and Carrie Cracknell’s A Doll’s House. And it’s Ibsen again in Public Enemy, better known to most as An Enemy of the People, but tackled here by playwright David Harrower and director Richard Jones with provocative comic zest. It’s a staging likely to infuriate anyone who likes period drama served straight, but it renders Ibsen’s play as restless and discomfiting as it deserves to be.

Ibsen’s story is perennially topical. The doctor of a small spa town discovers that the waters are polluted and bound to poison the tourists on whom the community depends. At first his discovery is welcomed by many – until they realise how much disclosing the truth will cost them. Suddenly Doctor Stockmann finds himself knee-deep in compromise, cowardice and corruption. You don’t have to look far in today’s world to find examples of ostracised whistle-blowers or corner-cutting that costs lives. But Jones’ sharply satirical staging is set in early 1970s Norway. There are no mobile phones or internet yet to mess up the plot, but more importantly the play fits right in with the fashionable radicalism of the era. Bryan Dick’s newspaper editor is particularly funny here, spouting big talk of revolution as long as it costs him nothing.

Miriam Buether’s kitsch set is all stripped pine, bilious orange decor and tinselly fjord views: a pretend reality. Here the men bristle with comic self-importance, from Darrell D’Silva’s pompous mayor to Niall Ashdown’s weaselly printer. Even Nick Fletcher’s earnest, duffel-coated Stockmann fancies himself as a man on a mission.

It’s when Stockmann realises the scale of hypocrisy he is up against, that the temperature of the show changes. The public meeting, in which Stockmann delivers a breathtaking assault on democracy, is staged to embrace the audience. A smart idea: it resonates with contemporary disengagement from mainstream politics and it makes Stockmann’s shift from lambasting politicians into haranguing the voters deeply uncomfortable. The audience begins to wince as Stockmann starts to rant about “the herd” and “extermination”. The strobe lighting that follows is a mistake. But the final vision of Stockmann, vehemently declaring that he will go it alone, appears troubling here, rather than heroic. Endemic complacency is bad but maverick individualism, Jones astutely suggests, is no solution.

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