Monday, October 15, 2018

An Enemy of the People by Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People by Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen.  Belvoir at Belvoir St Upstairs, Sydney, October 11 – November 4, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 13

Director – Anne-Louise Sarks; Set & Costume Designer – Mel Page; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer & Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory

Morton Kiil – Peter Carroll; Randine – Catherine Davies; Peter Stockman – Leon Ford; Hovstad – Steve Le Marquand; Aslaksen – Kenneth Moraleda; Dr Stockman – Kate Mulvaney; Petra – Nikita Waldron; Billing – Charles Wu
Photos: Brett Boardman
Nikita Waldron, Leon Ford, Kate Mulvaney
as Petra, her uncle Peter and her mother Dr Stockman
An Enemy of the People, Belvoir 2018

Belvoir may be a “Major” in the Australian theatre scene – and therefore we can expect productions of plays from the past in the standard canon – but when I leave the theatre feeling excited and even quite shivery about our future, I know I’ve seen an old play do for us now what Henrik Ibsen did in Norway in 1882: blow the whistle!

“By Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen” means what it says.  She has taken his play by the throat and shaken out of it all the changes in society that have evolved since – and very much because of – what he started.  Naturalism on stage offended and frightened audiences and officials in his day.  Reeves, with her “gang of four…with Anne-Louise Sarks, Louise Gough, and Kate Mulvaney”, does not offend me – but certainly frightens me.

Ibsen himself, of course, was already telling men off for how they treated women in A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, while in An Enemy of the People he tells the men off for allowing themselves to be corrupted by fear of losing money when they should always stand up for the truth despite the consequences.

Here’s the relevant ending in the Wikipedia account:
Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, Morton Kiil, arrives to say that he has just bought shares in the Baths with the money intended for the legacy that Dr. Stockmann's wife will inherit. He expects that this fact will cause his son-in-law to stop his crusade in order to insure that his wife and children will have a secure future. Dr. Stockmann rebuffs Kiil's threat and also ignores Peter's advice to leave town for a few months. Dr. Stockmann's wife tells him she is afraid that the people will drive him out of town. But Dr. Stockmann replies that he intends to stay and make them understand "that considerations of expediency and justice turn morality and justice upside down." He ends by proclaiming himself the strongest man in town because he is able to stand alone.

But the Gang of Four Women at Belvoir know that two issues are front and centre today: women being silenced, and the power of social media.  So their Dr Stockman is the widow of Ibsen’s Stockmann; Morton Kiil is her father-in-law; Peter, the mayor, is her brother; and the legacy money is for her daughter Petra.

In their ending Dr Stockman, like Ibsen’s Stockmann, goes over-the-top at the public meeting (except that they both spoke nothing but the truth) in a magnificent performance by Kate Mulvaney.  Her windows are not broken like his had been, but are scrawled with troll language: ‘bitch’ or was it 'witch' (as in ‘ditch the witch’ from Julia Gillard days) is the operative word.

The mother nearly gives in to her father-in-law’s threat to impoverish his granddaughter, but Petra, who has already been dismissed from her casual teaching job, tells Dr Stockman it’s too late – she has already posted everything on social media.  The truth is now out there.  Petra will stand alone.

Steve Le Marquand
as newspaper proprieter Hovstad, seeing his future as a politician
in the polluted waters of the health spa

At the public meeting

After the public meeting
Two moods of Dr Stockman: Kate Mulvaney

Catherine Davies as Dr Stockman's cleaner

The production of An Enemy of the People is brilliant.  Leon Ford is an awful mayor and brother, even raising in public, stories about his sister’s mental health after her husband died.  Peter Carroll’s Morton Kiil thinks the pollution story is fake news and remains frustratingly obtuse until the very end.  Nikita Waldron produces such a sensible and aware Petra for us to sincerely hope she will be able to stand the forces that we know will be brought to bear.  And Kate Mulvaney, in a fascinating kind of way, almost brought the strength of her Richard III to mind as she handled the most risky part of the show with such guts.

As a family story, there was more laughter from us watching than in ‘straight’ versions of An Enemy of the People, such as Hayes Gordon’s intense drama at Ensemble Theatre which I saw in 1969.  But even Hayes didn’t dare do what Anne-Louise has done – turn the whole theatre into the public meeting, with handouts to us all of pictures of the terrible skin disease effects of the heavy metal pollution of the spa baths.

This is brave theatre indeed, absolutely powerful in the Belvoir Upstairs shape.  The focus is concentrated on Dr Stockman on her microphone trying to manage the mayor who demands control, the small businessman with nothing but immediate profit on his mind, the newspaper proprieter with an aim to take over the town council, the aggressive reporter with his own agenda, interrupting from all points among the audience, marching down to take control and destroy the woman’s right to speak.

I felt like jumping up to take part myself, and kept thinking surely someone else will?  As a theatre critic, I was hamstrung, of course.  How could I become involved  when I am supposed to remain objective?  And why didn’t anyone else jump in?  I suppose because they were conscious they were an audience and were not meant to perform.

But that was the clever part in taking such a risk on the actors’ part.  The key point Dr Stockman makes is that even though we know the truth, and have the evidence in our very hands, what will we do?  Keep mum and do nothing!

And what an indictment of middle class morality among middle class audiences – even those who go to Belvoir.

I’m sure Kate Mulvaney will cope if someone joins in one night.  I hope they do, on her side.  I might still leave the theatre shivering, but more with the excitement of real hope for the future (even if I wonder how the play will end if the audience are at loggerheads with each other as the lights dim at the end of what was Act IV in Ibsen’s original, with the ending I quoted above still to go.)

Please don’t miss An Enemy of the People by Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen at Belvoir.  You have only three weeks to go.


The Daily Californian reports:

“An Enemy of the People” was brought to Berkeley by Schaubühne, an innovative theatrical group out of Berlin, Germany.

By Kate Tinney

During the final few scenes of the show, the actors opened the discussion of free speech and the value of democracy to the audience, asking them to contribute and pass around the microphone. One woman spoke of Flint, Michigan, another of the limits of representational democracy. Against each comment, Aslaksen (David Ruland), the newspaper’s printer, pushed back, twisting the facts and gaslighting the audience.

“You are trying to silence him, and we’ve had enough of people like you, so shut up and sit down,” one man said, pointing a finger up at Aslaksen.

“Then you drink the damn water,” another shouted against Aslaksen’s insistence that the water was both clean and fixable.

During the Beijing performance of this show just a month ago, this section of the play prompted shouted insults against the government and was met with a complete shutdown of the show and an end of that piece of the tour. In Berkeley, however, a call for government transparency and revolution was met with snaps and cheers from the audience.

There is something uniquely devastating about a show written hundreds of years ago about the mores of society remaining so relevant across cultures and centuries. “An Enemy of the People” was just such a show. Even across languages, Schaubühne effectively updated the show to make it viscerally relevant to today’s society.