McKellen: champion for the people

His body language has a strong smack of Michael Foot - the jerky, almost child-like awkwardness and passion, the uncompromising myopia abut visual effect that would be the despair of modern PR and spin-doctors. His verbal language at his public meeting lurches recklessly into areas that are more reminiscent of Hitler and co.

Balked by vested interests from delivering a revelatory report on the sewage that is contaminating the spa waters of the town's new baths, this academic-looking figure flies off the handle with a steadily mounting velocity. The deeper pollution is a moral one, he argues. The solid majority have proved themselves the sullied majority. Let the whole town be exterminated rather than live on a lie. It's clear that he shocks himself, too, with the throttled vehemence of these transports, but by now his survival instinct can't compete with his blazing sense of being a one-man decontaminating mission. This is Dr Thomas Stockmann, as brilliantly portrayed by Ian McKellen, in Trevor Nunn's mighty Olivier staging of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.

London audiences were last treated to this rarely performed play in Arthur Miller's anti-McCarthyite 1950s adaptation. This distorts the original by removing the risky rant and transforming Stockmann into a much less equivocal champion of the individual's right to challenge corrupt society. An Enemy of the People was written in reaction to the near-stoning Ibsen had received for his previous play, Ghosts. The temptation to use it for an exercise in simple self-vindication must have been strong. Equally, given the modern parallels with contamination and attempted cover ups a producer might feel it would be easier to sell the play as a more black- and-white campaigning piece.

Using an admirably involving translation by Christopher Hampton, this new production refuses to buckle to any such pressures. It allows Enemy of the People to emerge as what it is: an uncomfortable, fascinating drama about how truth can wind up being guarded by very clumsy hands. At first, I had my doubts about the pictorial sweep of the staging. Nunn, who takes up office as the new Director of the National Theatre on 1 October, could be forgiven for thinking that now would be a good time to knock everyone dead with a reminder of his flair for animating a large canvas.

But the whirl of life at the start - the peak-capped urchins racing over the multi-sectioned revolve, the brass band that marches through, the picturesque stall selling shares in the new spar - has the slightly synthetic bustle one associates with big musicals. Ibsen's play takes place in interiors. Here, though, there's a huge shipyard surround, all masts, fishing nets and sou'westered types; clouds are in ceaseless scud across the cyclorama. John Napier's set, topped off with a tall water tower, is the kind that cries out for a chase scene. It gets this in the riot after the public meeting which Nunn stages out of doors, with the listening towns folk gathered down the isles of the theatre to listen. Even people who find themselves thinking wistfully of the Lyttelton, will have to agree that, for this scene, the Olivier's forum-like space is ideal.

It's in the non-editorialising detail of the performances that the production scores. McKellen's Stockmann starts off a bit too hyperactive in his willed jolly sociability, but all the contradictions of the man are superbly in place: the naive vanity (his protests against being given a hero's torchlight parade sound, touchingly, like little dropped hints); the ironic sense, in his eagerly pally dealings with the (untrustworthy) young newspaper men, that he's more of a follower than a leader; the splendid mock-flusteredness and the explosive sarcasm with which he first tricks and then blasts away his enemies in the final act.

To his daughter, played by Lucy Whybrow, he's a shining hero. To his mayor-brother, Stephen Moore, he's a major irritant and threat. To his devoted, exasperated wife, Penny Downie, he's domestic ruin waiting to happen. McKellen lets you see that there is justification for all these views. At the end, ostracised, their house and their realistic prospects in the community smashed, this Stockmann whisks his family up to the heights of the water tower where they stand in huddled defiance. Some may think this a melodramatic gesture, typical of a thrilling yet overblown production. But the final tableau is ambiguous, smacking as much of self-deception and uncertainty as of heroic hope.

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