Last year, Belvoir staged a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, a late nineteenth century commentary on conservative ideology and the need to challenge old ideas. The play faced a backlash in its day and, in response to that reaction, Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People.
In its original form, An Enemy of the People tells the story of Dr Thomas Stockman, who discovers that the drainage system for the town’s baths – integral to its economy – is contaminated. But when the doctor decides to go public with the facts, powerful forces begin working against him to thwart those efforts.
For Belvoir’s 2018 production of the piece, Melbourne playwright Melissa Reeves has brought An Enemy of the People into the contemporary world. The doctor is now Dr Katherine Stockman (Kate Mulvany), the ‘Chief Wellness Consultant’ of the town’s spa. She learns that the spa water has become toxic and is making its guests ill. When she shares the disturbing information with local newspaper editor, Hovstad (Steve Le Marquand), another journalist, Billing (Charles Wu), and the head of the town’s small business association, Aslaksen (Kenneth Moraleda), Katherine initially finds support for her whistleblowing.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the toxicity of self-interest to rear its ugly head and for Katherine to find herself determined to tell a story that almost no one is willing to hear. Her brother and local mayor, Peter (Leon Ford), moves swiftly to turn her allies against her and to tarnish her reputation with the wider town community. In the process, Katherine finds out the lengths to which those around her are willing go, in order to preserve themselves – even her ruthless father-in-law, Morten Kiil (Peter Carroll), the owner of the mill that likely poisoned the spa water.
An Enemy of the People feels such an apt title for Ibsen’s play today, where it mirrors the label conservative forces have used to discredit the news media that shine a light on institutions. And thanks to Reeves’ considered updates to the text, this production raises pertinent questions around the demonisation of those who bring to light unpopular or uncomfortable truths. Director Anne-Louise Sarks succeeds in guiding her audience towards thoughts about the lengths to which some must go to make people care about the things that matter and what, if anything, will bring about change.
While the production overall is engaging, it’s the second half that is easily the most compelling. Staged as a town hall meeting, we watch as Katherine desperately tries to make her case to the community. At every opportunity, outbursts by those indomitably working to end the conversation make it increasingly difficult for her to share the truth. Both Mulvany’s performance and Sarks’ direction ensure that there’s an intense sense of helplessness; we feel Katherine’s heightening frustration from being unable to persuade her audience.
In the lead role, Mulvany is outstanding. She lends integrity to the role of Katherine, depicting a character who’s perhaps naïve but committed to her cause and unmoved by escalating intimidation and dwindling support. Mulvany is surrounded by a uniformly strong cast. Carroll is wonderful as the cold-blooded and entirely self-focused mill owner, Ford ensures Peter is a truly perfidious mayor, Le Marquand is excellent as the news editor only interested in truth to a point, and Charles Wu convinces as his sidekick, Billing. Nikita Waldron is the stalwart and unselfish daughter, Petra, and, from the outset, Moraleda plays Aslaksen as the ethically lax businessman we expect he will ultimately reveal himself to be.
As Randine, who cleans the Stockman household, Catherine Davies plays a role that elevates the character’s function from that in Ibsen’s original text. Towards the end of the piece, it’s Randine who reminds us of the voices constantly forgotten in public discussion and that those loudest in the conversation are those with the power. This revisiting of the character represents one of the best conceived updates to the play.
Mel Page’s simple set successfully locates the story, and the Upstairs Theatre is easily transformed into a town hall for the show’s most absorbing moments. And Stefan Gregory’s compositions have been effectively incorporated into the production.
An Enemy of the People, revamped for 2018 by Reeves and Sarks, is meaningful and engrossing and stimulates a crucial conversation about the need to face up to inescapable truths that impact us all – regardless of individual stakes.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 4 November, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444