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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Public Enemy
Young Vic Theatre Spring 2013

This is Ibsen-lite, Ibsen with almost all the social texture, character complexity and moral ambiguity stripped away. 

In adapting An Enemy Of The People, David Harrower has not only cut it to barely ninety minutes but turned it into a simple parable of how the noblest of causes can be let down by the imperfections of their adherents and how the veneer of ordinariness can hide a man's predilection for monomania. 

On that level it is quite successful, though those who know the play will be aware of how much is missing and those who don't may wonder why such a thin and simple play is a classic. 

A doctor discovers that the town's spa waters are lethally polluted and expects to be hailed as a hero for calling for the spa's closure. But the town's entire economy depends on health tourists, and it takes very little effort for those with the most invested to turn public opinion against him, inspiring him to expose an elitism and Coriolanus-like contempt for the common man that seals his fate. 

The dramatic power of Ibsen's play comes from its ambiguities. Although he clearly condemns those who would put lives at risk for gain and the supposedly crusading radical journalist who is easily bought off, he deliberately muddies the moral waters because he recognises that real people are rarely purely good or evil. 

The doctor's chief foe, the town mayor, is his brother, and their opposition is coloured by a lifelong sibling rivalry. At least some of the townsfolk are clearly not evil, but just confused by the threat to their livelihood. 

And despite the dark side of his character the doctor exposes in his almost racist rant, there is something heroic (if only quixotically so) in his determination to stand his ground and continue his fight for truth. 

Almost all of that is gone from Harrower's version and Richard Jones's production. Dr. Stockmann (Nick Fletcher) is introduced as a bit of an absent-minded professor in Miriam Buether's late-1960s setting he has the appearance and air of an ageing hippie and his campaign takes on the innocent but nave air of 60s anti-establishmentism. 

But his ego quickly appears in the premature assumption of the hero's mantle. And, in a bold move, when he turns on the town meeting that has turned against him, Fletcher doesn't rant but assumes the preternatural calm of the zealot living in a reality of his own. So there is nothing even partially heroic about his last stand, just the babbling of a madman as happy in the martyr role as he would have been as a hero. 

Harrower's trimming of the text leaves little more than a single note for each of the other characters, and Darrell D'Silva as the mayor, Bryan Dick as the journalist and Charlotte Randle as Mrs. Stockman expertly do what little they're given to do.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Public Enemy - Young Vic 2013 

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