An Enemy of the People, Arcola Theatre, London

4.00

A rare glimpse of Ibsen at his best

Fierce and formidable, all guns blazing, Mehmet Ergen's production lights up the Arcola with a cast that is never less than splendid. The gaunt and hollow-eyed Christopher Godwin, playing the mayor of a Norwegian spa town who suppresses a report that the waters are actually spreading disease, is as sullen and vicious as a starving wolf.

Robin Browne exudes stolid power as the malicious Neanderthal who owns the polluting tannery, and Jim Bywater makes for a comically infuriating representative of the property owners, counselling that their rights must be supported, but not excessively – or rather, unprofitably.

Fiona O'Shaughnessy's looks suggest Audrey Hepburn's and her voice Joan Greenwood's. She is a bewitching combination of idealism, refinement and sex as the mayor's niece, who argues that the spa should be shut down.

Most intense of all is Greg Hicks as her father, Doctor Stockmann, who, as the author of the damning report, is steely beneath his domestic benevolence, and volcanic when told that neither the workers nor the wealthy care how many they kill. His great, creased face, rich voice and formidable authority give weight to a role which, in lesser hands, risks becoming thinly self-righteous.

For Ibsen's other plays start where An Enemy of the People gets through. We are shown that the conflict between the doctor and the mayor is the latest expression of a lifelong quarrel – Stockmann has always disliked his brother's cold-hearted pragmatism; the mayor resents the doctor's cleverness and charisma.

But our hero is never made to face the fact that his animosity toward the brother, on whom he is financially dependent, has blinded him to the need to educate and persuade his fellow citizens – proclaiming his intelligence and integrity becomes more important to him than saving people from being poisoned. When, instead of honouring Stockmann for proposing to take away their livelihood, the townspeople turn on him, the doctor denounces them as fools – a judgment made more palatable to us, in this version, by cutting his Social Darwinist remarks about "disgusting, mangy, vulgar mongrels" whose brains don't develop in the same manner as gently reared pedigreed dogs. (Contempt for the uncomprehending majority was a personal matter with Ibsen, too: Enemy was written in response to the rejection of Ghosts by every theatre in Europe.)

Stockmann's arrogance never falters – his final declaration, that the strongest man is he who stands alone, sounds less like a triumph of the human spirit than a glorification of his ineptitude at dealing with people. But Hicks, showing us how the doctor's inner agony drives his rage at the town, never loses our sympathy. Indeed, we pity him most when he behaves worst, laying about him with his stick at his opponents and nearly striking his beloved wife. That last, stirring line, we fear, will return to haunt him once poverty and ostracism take their toll on the wife and two young sons (unseen in this version) whose lives he has so blithely derailed.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation, despite stripping the text to an incisive two hours plus interval, is littered with sloppy anachronisms ("He thinks I'm mental"; "He's quite incredible [meaning 'wonderful']"; "We're sitting on a cash cow") and Jason Southgate's otherwise satisfactory set is weakened by two dinky appendages – a sort of B&Q Wendy house at the rear and a Diana Memorial-style channel of water snaking into the audience. But Adrienne Quartly has provided some nifty sounds, such as the newspaper office typewriters that turn into a swarm of avenging bees. If only this production could be taken to its natural home, the scene of another scandal-ridden spa – Bath – where it might enrage some but provide grim amusement to many.

To 26 April; (020-7503 1646; www.arcolatheatre.com)

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