Tarragon’s production of An Enemy of the People highlights all the reasons why we love Ibsen. We can still sit down at one of his plays and be completely enthralled, or even outraged, to the point where we feel the need to get involved. 132 years later, we are still the townspeople. We still want a say in the matter.
This adaptation, by Florian Borchmeyer, originally adapted for the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin, coats the ending of the play with a black cloud of dread that Ibsen would have smiled at. The ending paints a potent picture of the government’s control over its people, even in a democratic society. Scientist Thomas Stockmann (Joe Cobden) prides himself on being able to have his own views and opinions, separate from the government and the majority, but without the government’s support, Stockmann simply cannot survive.
When Stockmann discovers that the town baths are contaminated, he is eager to get his story out there. With the People’s Herald’s Hovstad (Matthew Edison), Aslaksen (Tom Barnett) and Billing (Brandon McGibbon) initially backing the story, Stockmann believes he has the people on his side. But what happens when these men discover that revealing this particular story may affect more than just the government? Well, the characters hold a town meeting, of course. And what better way to make a decision than to get the input of Tarragon’s spectators.
This, of course, is a brave endeavour, and as any Torontonian theatre-goer knows, our audiences are often less than willing to get in on the action. But to this critic’s surprise, the audience was fired up and ready to go. Bravo, Tarragon, bravo.
At the meeting we learn, quite frankly, that you have to get the people on your side. Stockmann’s brother Peter (Rick Roberts) is a politician and an ace persuader. While Stockmann’s intentions are of the best nature, he starts to go off the rails during his speech at the town meeting and we slowly see audience members changing their opinion about him. Initially outraged by the government scandal, spectators become more and more reluctant to listen to Stockmann’s rant. In an amazing display of improvisation, Roberts, as Peter, slowly soothes audience members into submission. Political magic.
The set design by Michelle Tracey (the idea flown over from the Berlin production) is absolutely stunning. A chalkboard house, spattered with drawings, ideas, sayings and bizarre markings, encompasses the entire world of the play. A “freethinking” society. But chalk is not permanent and neither is the freedom that Stockmann thinks he has. And as society starts to turn against him, the chalk is not removed from the walls, but completely painted over, leaving no room for Stockmann to write another word.
An Enemy of the People, directed by Richard Rose, is playing at the Tarragon Theatre until Oct. 26. For tickets and more information, visit http://tarragontheatre.com/.