Once in a while, you come across a production that, in all its entities of performance and design, accomplishes its goal of provoking the audience.
This is exactly what this thrilling staging of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People succeeds at. Tarragon Theatre brings back this critically acclaimed adaptation but with a new twist – Dr. Stockmann is now a female character in Maria Milisavljevic’s English translation, providing for a more captivating and modern telling that is accessible to us all.
Originally adapted in German for the Schaubühne by Florian Borchmeyer, the production follows Dr. Stockmann (Laura Condlln) as she discovers that the local baths in town are highly contaminated and advises to shut them down for public safety. As she aims to make this information public, her relationships, including one with her brother and town councillor Peter Stockmann (Rick Roberts), are put to the test as this explosive story threatens to turn the town’s economy upside down.
As I enter Tarragon’s Mainstage, a scrim covers the stage with text across it that reads, “I am what I am,” a speech that will come later in the show. Once the scrim is lifted and the show begins, the audience is introduced to Dr. Stockmann and her wife’s (Tamara Podemski) house set up as a band practice. Podemski and Lyon Smith (playing Billing) practice covers of songs of Gnarls Barkley -- the most poignant being “Changes” by David Bowie, as its theme reappears throughout the production. Richard Rose’s staging helps to deliver a contemporary story we can all understand, even though Ibsen’s text takes us back to 1882.
The show presents a mixture of realist (Ibsen’s forte) and non-realist theatre, which requires audience participation. This is so brilliantly executed in the town hall meeting, as we are no longer asked to be an audience member, but rather to be a citizen of the town. Tarragon’s intimate space and Jason Hand’s lighting design is clever here, as the house lights come up on the audience, allowing us to be acknowledged by the actors. Without giving too much away about this section of the show, the audience is included in the discussion about the baths as Dr. Stockmann reveals her findings to us. In response, Aslaksen (Tom Barnett) and Peter (Roberts) directly prompt us to share our opinions. Suspend your disbelief, join the discussion and you’ll be surprised about the comments that arise.
A superb cast is highlighted by Condlln who gives an intense, passionate performance and creates an effective onstage dynamic with Roberts as her brother. These two find each other in a brutally honest screaming match that sets the tone of their relationship for the remainder of the show; Condlln and Roberts are the perfect big brother, little sister duo with their strained relationship. There are noteworthy performances from the rest of the cast, especially Morten Kiil (David Fox) as Dr. Stockmann’s witty father-in-law who is constantly repeating “Ch-ch-changes,” bringing some humour to an intense show.
Michelle Tracey’s set design stands out as the black chalkboard room is interchangeable for all of the play’s locations. The room is covered with drawings of various things; everything from English and French quotes, to chemical bonds, to even a shark. Before the town hall meeting, the room is painted completely white in messy strokes that deliberately keep some of the drawings visible underneath. The set becomes the true design element that propels the story forward as characters write on the walls to indicate scene changes or to reveal new spaces emerging out of scene changes.
After the production, I stayed for the talkback with the cast who reminded me that this play showcases the need and importance to recreate theatre for a modern audience. With a fantastic cast that delivers a provoking staging of a classic, I am left jolted by its ambiguous ending. And this is exactly what good theatre must do.
An Enemy of the People runs until Nov. 1 in the Mainspace at Tarragon Theatre. For more information visit: http://tarragontheatre.com/show/an-enemy-of-the-people-2/