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The Theatreguide.London Review

An Enemy of the People
Arcola Theatre       Spring 2008

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation of Ibsen is an object lesson in the fact that great playwrights do not really need the help of not-great playwrights.

Without making major changes in plot or structure, Lenkiewicz has transformed a debate on moral and economic politics and a complex character study into a crude portrait of a petty and almost wholly unsympathetic zealot.

Her version is not without interest, and it does bring out elements that were part of Ibsen's vision, but at the expense of everything else in the play.

This is the one about the doctor in a spa town who discovers that the supposedly medicinal baths are lethally polluted and will have to be closed down for lengthy and expensive repairs.

Though he is first applauded by some, the town - led by his brother, the mayor - quickly turns against him once the economic repercussions are realised. Turned overnight into a pariah, he vows to fight on in the name of truth.

Ibsen's hero is no plaster saint, and the play offers us the dramatically fascinating picture of a man doing the right things for at least partially wrong reasons while offering a little grudging sympathy for those who oppose him.

In this version, directed by Mehmet Ergen, questions of right and wrong, or even of the state of the baths, disappear from the debate very quickly, leaving the emphasis on the petty and personal motivations that drive all the characters.

The two brothers are living out childhood rivalries, the mayor jealous of any credit or praise that falls to his brother, the doctor resenting a lifetime of bullying.

As in the original, the radical journalists who at first support the doctor are openly using him to fight the establishment, but they are not allowed even the hint of any higher impulses.

When the doctor is shouted down as he tries to tell a public meeting of his discovery, he loses his temper and argues that the uninformed majority should allow themselves to be led by the few who know and understand.

Lenkiewicz couches this in the ugliest of demagogic and near-racist language, so that our reaction is not concern that the doctor is blowing his big chance to do good, but relief that this madman has been exposed (and to hell with all the people who will die in the baths).

And at the end, when he vows to fight on, there is not the trace of heroism left, just the unhappy spectacle of a pathetic loser dragging his family down with him.

Yes, as I said, some of that is in Ibsen's play and his portrait of the central character. But there is much more, and there are also not ear-jarring references to being in or out of the closet and other anachronisms.

Given such a stripped-down characterisation, the always admirable Greg Hicks is left with little to do but shout, though he does allow the man occasional frightened glimpses into the madness he is slipping toward.

Christopher Godwin makes the mayor an old pro who can demolish his brother and manipulate the mob without breaking a sweat, but nobody else in the large cast registers.

Director Mehmet Ergen not only encourages one-note performances from most, but has chosen to stage the play with the audience on three sides so that some (admittedly unimportant) moments are invisible to many.

Greg Hicks is one of those actors I would happily watch reading the telephone book, but the only attraction here is seeing him fight valiantly against defeat by the text and direction.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of An Enemy Of The People - Arcola Theatre 2008


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