Theatre review: Public Enemy, Young Vic, London


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The Independent Culture

A tale of corruption, greed and the responsibility of the press, states the Young Vic's publicity, and you can't say fairer than that. Ibsen's perennially pertinent dissection of spa town fall-out after the chief medical officer, Doctor Stockmann, undermines the tourist industry by pointing out that the water is contaminated, never fails.

And the town’s newspaper plays its part by confusing its role as a purveyor of truth with a misguided sense of local honour and reputation. Director Richard Jones’s outrageously eccentric approach to the scenes of public uproar and private mayhem pins the dilemma in absurdity: “We promote ourselves as the healthiest spa town in the region; the hope that springs in thermals.”

As usual, Jones embraces the most difficult dimensions of the Young Vic’s adaptable auditorium, using a vast width for the Stockmanns’ home, which resembles a giant sauna with hideous orange wallpaper. Designer Miriam Buether also provides a green and blue environmental logo which is affixed to every seat in the house, and the Mayor’s blue uniform at the political rally.

“Anyone here got a good word for politicians?” asks Nick Fletcher’s rat-like Stockmann before declaring that the stupid majority is more of a danger to society than the politicians, anyway. David Harrower’s new version of the play (using a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund) goes in the opposite direction of Arthur Miller’s in deflating Stockmann’s rhetoric and advocating ideological indolence. 

Stockmann becomes such a hate figure that he finds an effigy of himself hanging in the lounge, surrounded by the broken glass in the window that looks out on a twinkling vista of lakes and mountains. For the environmental catastrophe can be traced literally to his own front door. His wife’s father, Morten Kiil (played as old hippie backwoodsman by David Sibley), owns the tannery in the hills which, for three generations, has been poisoning the town’s water supply. 

An Enemy of the People, as it’s more usually known, expresses one of the great conundrums of modern times – what price our progress and prosperity? – decades before we started squabbling over third airports and runways, or high speed trains scything through the countryside. 

No wonder Charlotte Randle plays Mrs Stockmann as a gibbering, near-hysterical wreck, by no means reassured that her husband’s plans for a free school at home for their sons, and a closed door policy when it comes to neighbourliness, will turn out for the best.

To 8 June (020 7922 2922)