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.

In rep. Booking: 0171-928 2252

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own