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An Enemy of the People (Belvoir, Sydney)

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To contemporise a great classic of the stage is one thing. To turn it into a state-of-the-current-nation play is quite another.

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People has always been about power, truth and morality. Which is why indolent directors have long reached for it on the shelf in times of heightened anxiety. But there’s nothing lazy about what Melbourne playwright Melissa Reeves has done here, exploding the text and rebuilding it with the headlines, tweets and trauma of 2018.

Her Enemy Of The People is about Donald Trump and #MeToo, in organic ways not nearly as obnoxious as it sounds. It’s about class and race in ways that stop barbecues, not literary journals. It’s about our broken politics and our broken communities and our broken promises to each other.

It’s about so much, in fact, that the play can groan under the weight of it all. And yet I was prepared to forgive many of its flaws, so burning is its ambition and so persuasive its perspective.

Much of the trick is in the clever gender-swap. Dr Stockman, the medical officer at the town baths who sounds the alarm on water contamination, is now a woman. She’s a woman, recently widowed, with a community-shattering story that nobody wants to hear. The cover-up in this production is not just rotten politics but stark sexism. To maintain the order of things she must be destroyed.

I think I’m right in saying her first name is never mentioned in the play. It’s certainly not in the program. She is everywoman. Particularly in these times.

Three formidable females, thankfully, helm the piece. Reeves (The Spook, Furious Mattress)with a sadistic knack for putting ordinary characters under extraordinary pressure, has written flawed people with real anger and anguish. Director Anne-Louise Sarks (Jasper Jones, Medea) stages key moments with laser precision. And Kate Mulvany, a skilled dramaturg in her own right, takes the protagonist role and imbues her with fierce conviction and heartfelt fragility.

The design team, too, is a rare all-female effort and they’ve done a terrific job. Mel Page’s set is dominated by a glass room, which cleverly doubles as the family home and, all steamed up, the luxury spa. Verity Hampson lights it starkly.

Ibsen called his work a comedy. Reeves and Sarks have rebuilt it in the same spirit, but laden with contemporary culture the tone felt awkward at times. And not everyone handles it on stage as well as Mulvany. There are few real laughs, though the colloquial levity draws us into the intrigue.

There is, certainly, a general unevenness in the script. Reeves has distilled the work to little more than two hours, but some scenes still drag. The second act opens at a town forum, immersing the audience as judge and executioner while employing Belvoir’s corner space in one of the most powerful ways I’ve seen. Mulvany’s monologue, on corruption and civility and anti-elitism, should be on the senior syllabus. But the air later comes out of the tyres with extraneous back-and-forth.

The ensemble, led quite brilliantly by Mulvany, is solid. Leon Ford is Peter, the brother and mayor who first turns against his sister. Morten, their father who runs the factory contaminating the supply, is performed with spry callousness by the wonderful Peter Carroll. Nikita Waldron plays Petra, the daughter and her mother’s only faithful supporter.

Of the pitchfork-wielding townsmen, Steve Le Marquand is slimy newspaper editor Hovstad (“Hoff”), Charles Wu his ambitious reporter Billing, and Kenneth Moraleda is particularly effective as Aslaksen, the ingratiating business chamber head. The three of them turn on a dime against the good doctor, unbelievably so, hinting at some pot-holed adapting.

Other characters from the text are done away with, and one is given much greater prominence: Randine (Catherine Davies), a maid to the family and a cipher for ideas on class. She’s a strange archangel to the doctor, goading her into standing up for herself but then, in the final act, lecturing her on the race and class privilege she still enjoys even as a broken woman. It’s a false moment that pulls focus, a Jenga block of yet another topic that threatens to collapse the play.

That it doesn’t is a credit to the sturdy construction by its astute female artists. Give me a play with too many ideas over one with too few.

An Enemy Of The People plays Belvoir St Theatre until November 4

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2 responses to “An Enemy of the People (Belvoir, Sydney)

  1. I haven’t seen this play, but reading this review I have to agree with Tom Price! I am a great Ibsen fan and was very pleased to see his “Ghosts” at the Belvoir last year and it was the play and characters that I knew! But this sounds nothing like the play that he wrote. It also sounds like one of those modern plays that try to include too many “social issues”.

  2. au contraire. this is textbook case of how bad adaptation can destroy a great play. this has virtually nothing in common with ibsen except the bare bones of story. i am finding it increasingly objectionable that current writers and directors seem to think it’s okay to completely ruin style and dialogue if a play is in translation, in ways they wouldn’t dream of doing to something like, for example, oscar wilde or bernard shaw. part of ibsen’s genius consists in making the small and domestic into something universal. belvoir’s production trivialises the whole thing back into something like an episode of “grass roots”. woeful. kate m should have known better.

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