Saturday, October 4, 2014

AN Enemy of the People

Ibsen’s seminal, late 19th century play, An Enemy of the People, was, in part, a response to the public outcry against his earlier play Ghosts, attacking the hypocrisy of Victorian morality with thinly veiled references to syphilis and familial responsibility. In an age of ebola, AIDS, rampant poverty, and global warfare against all that threatens the greasy mechanisms of late capitalist excess, An Enemy of the People becomes a latent, prophetic war cry in the midst of all that we live with in the twenty first century. 

Toronto, in particular, as we prepare to choose a municipal leader who will either lead us further into - or gradually out of - the pitfalls of unrestricted urban growth (i.e. unaffordable real estate, gas guzzling highways, massive and intrusive subway systems) may take note as the current Tarragon theatre production of Ibsen’s scathing cautionary tale takes the stage with immense political power and artistic excellence.
Adapted by Florian Borchmeyer and translated by Maria Milisavljevic, this contemporary version was first seen by director Richard Rose at the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin in 2013. In his program note Rose articulates specific Canadian concerns that relate to the play’s central narrative theme -

The contemporary take both in adaptation and production spoke so clearly, so directly and with complexity to the current Canadian struggle of environment versus economy. Tar sands, climate change, fracking, pipelines, Walkerton, the cod and salmon fisheries, all came to mind as I experienced this production. I knew instantly that we had to do it.

With the aid of a brilliant cast and crew, Rose has created a spectacular one hundred and five minute - no intermission - evening of explosive social and political action that clips along at a breakneck pace. A section near the end that raises the houselights and includes audience members is both entertaining and harrowing as skilled actors stay in character and challenge any given spectators thoughts on the issues being raised. It is difficult to single out any one performer as the seven member ensemble creates a collage of rhythmic highs and lows that literally fill the stage with music, mayhem, and dark, at times sardonic humor. Ibsen’s text both mocks and attempts to re-negoiate the complex values of a culture struggling with a social apparatus that traps its population within diverse and seemingly impossible scenarios. 

Perhaps the biggest star of the evening is the set - by Michelle Tracey. An almost childlike chalkboard studio is created for the action to take place and to mutate within. Complex set changes have actors playing double duty with stage management as they re-arrange the rooms with quick and entertaining abandon. A finale of literal white washing is both humorous and terrifying as people and ideas are splattered and blown out of town - destroying political ideals and lives for the sake of economic prowess and urban growth.
Small town livelihood is revealed as a satellite product of mammoth urban development, and the contaminated baths of the once pristine village become a symbol of a global village ablaze with the worst kind of unrestricted growth shrouded by the dubious notion of industrial progress.
Rick Roberts as Peter and Joe Cobden as Stockmann lock horns as brothers who can never see eye to eye on what is best for their town. Stock characters abound as Roberts plays the charismatic corporate type while Cobden creates an idealistic, gangly version of a doctor attuned to the health of the townspeople as the most important element of personal and public priority.
When the two actors engage onstage it is loud, exciting, and pure politically charged entertainment. Their supporting cast mingles with the story at hand, adding soap opera’ish twists and turns throughout. Tamara Podemski as Stockmann’s wife creates a powerful, at times conflicted counterpart to Cobden’s wide eyed social conscience, while Matthew Edison and Brandon McGibbon create a kind of newspaper boy team that beguiles with youthful charm at the outset, and then switches moral codes as the stakes get higher. Tom Barnet’s villainous presence, interspersed throughout as an almost cartoon’ish comic strip foil, highlights Richard Rose’s directorial choices as conscious attempts to reveal the simultaneously shallow depth of the very serious problems at hand.

One leaves the theatre feeling enervated, entertained, and fully engaged in a timeless, symbolic drama that resonates with an intensely foreboding tone. And against all odds, depressing times, in the hands of a brilliant production team, become the fuel for intriguing debate in the form of truly great theatre.



  •  Henrik Ibsen
  •  Richard Rose
  •  Florian Borchmeyer
  •  Maria Milisavljevic
  •  Marinda de Beer
  •  Jason Hand
  •  David Jansen
  •  Robin Munro
  • Thomas Ryder Payne
  •  Michelle Tracey
  •  Johnny Wideman

  •  Tom BarnettJoe CobdenMatthew Edison
  • Brandon McGibbonRichard McMillan
  • Tamara Podemski & Rick Roberts

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