Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe, Paris
When Henrik Ibsen sat down to write An Enemy of the People in 1882, his mind was seething with vengeful anger. One critic memorably observed that he began work by dipping his pen in acid. His previous play Ghosts had been savaged by the public and the critics for its scathing attack on 19th century morality and he was in no mood for capitulation.
It is evident from the emerging torrent of conflicting arguments and counter arguments that Ibsen was on a roll, hell bent on pushing the envelope as far and and as fast as theatrical limitations would allow. French actor/director Jean-François Sivadier has responded with alacrity to the mood of the play with an epic, spectacularly staged production that fills the Odéon’s huge performance space with a heady mix of fun and fury.
He sets out to create an atmosphere of laughter and anger, comedy and nightmare. From an audience perspective, emerging from an uninterrupted, three-hour verbal and visual tirade, one feels in equal parts wrung out and energised.
Savadier and designer Christian Tirole’s shared vision of the play for 21st century consumption incorporates two core elements: water and transparency. We live in a world of fake news and cover-up, whistleblowers and spin doctors. Our planet is under unprecedented threat from climate change, floods, drought, famine, water shortages and pollution. And ever present is the jeopardy imposed by global commercial interests, materialism and greed. Almost 140 years after it was written, the play resonates as strongly as ever.
Starkly lit, clear plastic panels and sheeting suggest a society in which all is truthful and accountable. It’s not long before we are disabused of that notion. The sound of water is ever present, as befits the play’s setting in a prosperous spa town. But as concerns mount around the discovery of industrial contamination in the spa springs, bureaucrats, media and industrialists close ranks. And, in the background, the melodic trickle will slowly build to a deafening deluge of denunciation and recrimination.
The man of the title is the genial Dr. Tomas Stockmann, first glimpsed in his family home, which here resembles an experimental science laboratory. He is surrounded at the dinner table by his wife and a group of liberal, cultured friends. They share food, jokes and the good life. Stockman rules the roost, the model of a family doctor and charismatic leader, a veritable man of the people.
When his research uncovers the extent of the potential health and environmental damage caused by the tainted water, his natural reaction is to go public with the information. Initially his friends at the local newspaper sense a scoop and are supportive, but gradually they drift towards the opposition forces, personified by his brother Peter, who is the town Mayor, and his father-in-law Morten Kill, whose tanning factory is the source of the pollution.
Increasingly frustrated and fettered, Stockman calls a citizens’ meeting in the town hall. In a virtuoso masterclass of disciplined, tightly controlled acting, Nicolas Bouchaud moves from concerned resident to enraged zealot, accusing all and sundry of hypocrisy and double standards of the worst possible kind. In the space of a single evening he has anointed himself the public enemy. Unpleasant repercussions are inevitable.
Bouchaud carries this weighty, no-holds-barred production with tremendous authority and is effectively supported by Sharif Andoura’s cynical editor Hovstad and Vincent Guédon as his self-seeking brother Peter. In contrast, there are a handful of oddly idiosyncratic individual performances whose rationale it is difficult to figure.
The nightmare intensifies in the closing minutes of this mighty play. Quietly supported by his wife Katrine (Agnès Sourdillon), Stockmann has become a social outcast, a pariah. His final choice lies between comfortable, distant exile or remaining in his town as a solitary but principled citizen. There is no doubting the decision he will take.