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Review: An Enemy of the People (Duke of York's Theatre)

Review by Harry Bower

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

Matt Smith, of Doctor Who fame but with an impressive theatrical resume, recently said in an interview with The Guardian that he wants to “do stuff that pushes things to the edge”. That sentiment is evident in this revival of An Enemy of the People, originally written in 1882 by Henrik Ibsen and adapted for 2024 by German powerhouse director Thomas Ostermeier, staged now at The Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End. Though I’ve not seen other revivals myself, with an updated script and some bold creative choices, by all accounts this staging is distinctively different to others before it. An Enemy of the People is essentially a drama which is political (rather than a political drama), which questions the relationships between truth, politics, the economy and money, and the press; and everything in-between. It feels scorchingly relevant with the context of modern Britain and its government which has been plagued by scandal and political turmoil for decades now.

 

Smith’s role is as Doctor Stockmann, an inherently cynical and suspicious character with pent up energy and an unwavering moral compass. His partner, Katharina (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a teacher balancing looking after their newborn and managing the household while Stockmann floats from one cause or project to the next. Together they make up half of a generic indie rock covers band. On drums is editor-in-chief of the local newspaper and a close friend of the pair, Hovstad, on one hand a naïve idealist on the other the kind of guy many like to see themselves as; righteous and underdog. Guitar is played by Billing, another Newspaper staffer and friend of the group. The paper publisher and source of funding, Aslaksen, floats around pretending not to intervene in journalistic matters despite somehow always being present when editorial decisions are made. The mayor of the town is Stockmann’s brother, Peter – and the cast is completed by his father-in-law, Morten; the factory owner who serves a constant reminder of capitalism.



As Stockmann uncovers a scandal at the heart of public health and the local economy, he begins stirring the pot of revolution, feeling out the appetite in those close to him to support his quest for moral enlightenment. Almost pantomime villain-like is brother and mayor Peter, played with brilliant exasperation by Paul Hilton, who pulls out all the stops to stop the cogs of justice and attempt to contain the scandal, engulfing the press and local opinion in his wake. Act one warms up nicely, Stockmann coming across focused and anal but fundamentally decent, allowing the audience to let their guard down somewhat and learn to like him; before a shattering collapse in sensibility at the start of act two which forces a dramatic assault of belief on the part of the audience. Essentially – a ‘make your mind up’ act.

 

This will perhaps be the most talked about part of the play, an all-hands town hall scene in which the Doctor addresses us, his audience, as a physical manifestation of the stupid liberal majority he so despises. In a split second we go from engagement in thought only, to full-on involved engagement in the form of contributions via microphones in the auditorium. Audience members are invited to offer their agreement, disagreement, or opinion, moderated throughout in media-spin-doctor fashion by Aslaksen, all actors remaining in character throughout, thinking on their feet, improvising responses. Most of the contributions from people in the audience on the night I was watching were either well intentioned but patchy and incoherent in parts, or completely missed the point of what was being asked of them. And therein lies the genius of Ostermeier in opening the discussion for unfiltered contributions. It cleverly exposes the lack of consensus amongst the so-called majority, and in many ways allows the audience to be the evidence which proves his overall point.



I was somewhat apprehensive that this production might fall into the realm of stunt casting but, in reality, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Smith is perfect for his role, as is the rest of the cast for theirs. Shubham Saraf continues a strong few years with a stellar and cowardly (in a good way) performance as Hovstad, and Zachary Hart brings needed comic relief to an already quite funny production as Billing – with wonderful timing and a cheeky knowing-smile which frequently breaks the fourth wall. Jessica Brown Findlay is the long-suffering and patient Katharina Stockmann – the chemistry between her and Smith is palpable and believable. Nigel Lindsay is stoic and assured as father-in-law Morten and comes in tandem with the adorable Leyla, an Alsatian who is presumably there as a visual representation of his intimidation but instead serves to reduce the audience to audible ‘awws’ when she runs across the stage.

 

One of the handful of criticisms I have of the piece is that it is frankly too blunt an object to beat us with, and in losing nuance it eliminates any room for interpretation. The stage comes decorated with chalk designs which suggest what we’re in for before the play has even begun, and from there choices are ever more deliberate. There’s literal whitewashing of the stage, a physical interpretation of the Doctor clearing up his own mess, and other entirely predictable (yet still bracing) interactions which feel a bit like you want to sigh and say “well, duh”. Those moments are earned by the performances and the overall narrative though, and the ending goes some way toward restoring some of that room for interpretation; it’s ominous and thought-provoking.



Like an intense argument with yourself, An Enemy of the People is both captivating and frustrating, and intellectually stimulating. It’s also hugely entertaining, funny, and expertly directed. With its star turn in Smith, complimented by a strong cast, a real life dog, and audience interaction; this is a production destined to drive the conversation with West End audiences for the duration of its run and beyond.


An Enemy of the People plays at The Duke of York’s Theatre until Saturday 13 April 2024. For more information and tickets visit https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/an-enemy-of-the-people/duke-of-yorks-theatre/

 

Photos by Manuel Harlan

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