Tuesday, April 30, 2024

An Enemy of the People

Matt Smith and Jessica Brown Findlay
in "An Enemy of the People"

I was anxious to see Thomas Ostermeier's production of An Enemy of the People for several reasons. For one thing, I've found previous work of his, particularly the Ibsen adaptations, absolutely thrilling. His Hedda Gabler was superb - and I was astonished to discover when I searched this blog for my response that I saw it as long ago as 2008! I still remember very vividly the impassive central performance of Katharina Schüttler (who was also brilliant in Ostermeier's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted), cold as ice and utterly bored - so disillusioned that she seemed never to have known illusion. An Enemy of the People also came to the Barbican, where I'd seen both of those previous shows, in 2014.  I was very sorry to miss it, not least because of the buzz around it from people like Simon McBurney. So when it popped up in the West End a decade later, this time in English with Matt Smith in the lead, I had to book. It was a midweek matinée, and it was ridiculously expensive.

Much of the discourse around the Barbican performances, and other outings for this much-travelled show, centred on the audience debate that happens in the middle of the performance. I was at once keen to experience this and a bit nervous: we are planning an interactive moment of live democracy in our forthcoming Suppliants of Syria. I wanted to see whether Ostermeier's debate worked, and if so how. And I wanted to make sure it wasn't too close to what we're planning: it's never a good idea to lay yourself open to accusations of plagiarism.

I needn't have worried. Disappointingly, the "debate" at the heart of Ostermeier's production isn't really a debate at all. Matt Smith as Dr Stockmann, a star doing a star turn, stands at a lectern after the interval and delivers a very rousing and insightful monologue about the horrors of contemporary capitalism. It's clearly updated as the production ages and grows: for the 2024 West End outing there's a lot about social media, algorithms and online manipulation. Climate change, of course. There's also a lot about grotesque wealth and obscene inequality. It would be pretty difficult to disagree with him. But that is how the production works - Stockmann is quite obviously right, but the bosses and the politicians shut him down anyway. You could, I suppose, say that's also how our world works - but I don't think it's how Ibsen works, and I also don't think it's how theatre works more generally. In Ibsen's original text, there's a lot more nuance: Stockmann's brother Peter does actually have some cogent arguments about social cohesion and the threat to the local economy, all of which become melodramatically transformed into incoherent malice and selfishness in Ostermeier's version. There is a hero and there is a villain.

If we all know who's right and who's wrong, then of course it becomes a bit of a challenge to hold a debate. But the production doesn't really hold a debate at all. Instead Priyanga Burford, the actor "in the chair", asks who agrees with Dr. Stockmann and why. So we get a series of interventions expressing personal experiences or ideas which support the general (by now well-established) point that capitalism sucks. I don't disagree, of course - but it isn't a debate and it isn't dramatic. In fact, it feels closer to an evangelical testimonial session or a right-wing rally than to a democratic forum. And, I'm afraid, it's also blindingly hypocritical. 

So I put my hand up. I get the mic. I agree with what Dr Stockmann had said: of course I do. I agree that theatre should open up and expose our social and political structures. And then I ask, if this production is so deeply opposed to capitalism, why is it so expensive just to be in the room?  

Thunderous applause. Cheers. Laughter. An explosion of joy and anger combined. People all around patting me on the back.

Priyanga Burford tries to deflect it by returning to the fiction. "Oh!" she says, "did you have to pay to come in? We'll have to look into that."  Too right we will.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Sidi Bouzid

Street scene: Regueb, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

I've been in Tunisia this week, thanks to an invitation from ATAC (Association Tunisienne de L’Action Culturelle), who initiate cultural actions for human rights in the face of some great challenges! Riadh Abidi and Nouha Hajji, who run the organisation, are incredibly committed to social justice and the role of culture in securing it: so this seemed an ideal place to offer a first preview screening of our SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA film. So far, it's only fully accessible to Arabic-speaking audiences, as that's how far the subtitling process has got - but an Arabic-speaking audience is exactly what we have here, even though we are a long way from Syria and from Adana, at least physically. The cultural links between Syrian refugees and Tunisians are of course very strong, and are being made stronger by the response to the Gaza crisis across the Islamic world. What's more, the question of Fortress Europe is very real here, as in Turkey. On the day we screened the film, Giorgia Meloni was in Tunis for the fourth time this year, having "further discussions" around migration with President Saied. There's already a basic deal in place between Tunisia and the EU, akin to the (much larger) EU-Turkey deal, whereby Tunisia is paid to intercept migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The Tunisian government says it has prevented 21,000 crossings this year alone. Many of these migrants had already crossed the Sahara to get this far: they come from conflict or post-conflict zones like the DRC, Sierra Leone, Northern Nigeria and Senegal. 

But it was not just the section of the film about European exclusion of desperate people that struck a chord here. Sidi Bouzid, the city where we showed the film, was also the place where the Arab Spring began. It's not a very big city - it has fewer than 50,000 inhabitants - and that makes the reach of what happened here all the more extraordinary. On 17th December 2010, a 26 year old street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the public street, burning to death. His self-immolation was an act of desperate protest against endemic corruption: his goods had been confiscated and he had been publicly humiliated by civic officials after he refused to bribe them. Bouazizi's actions led to a wave of further protests in the city and the surrounding areas, which the people of Sidi Bouzid, with great foresight, recorded on their phones and uploaded to social media. In particular, they recorded the authorities' use of violence against them: there were at least 20 further deaths. The protests spread across the country, and by January 14th 2011, President Ben Ali had been forced to flee the country. Not long after, further revolutionary actions began across the Arab World; including, of course, the outbreak of the ongoing conflicts in Syria.

So the question at the centre of Aeschylus's Suppliants, and of our SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, seemed incredibly immediate and intense at Wednesday's screening: "What is this thing they call democracy?" As David Wiles points out in the film, democracy is not necessarily compatible with human rights - indeed he suggests there may be a fundamental incompatibility between the two. If, as European and American governments like to suggest, the "representative" systems that they have in place serve to enact the rule of "the people", then what of the rights of other people who are by definition not part of the "rule" in that state? When "the people" rise up to claim their rights, which would seem to be a "democratic" endeavour, why does it so often lead to greater repression or to anarchy? More than a decade on, can any positive meaning be found in the tragic death of Mohamed Bouazizi?

I saw these images on a wall in Regueb, a smaller town in the Govenornate of Sid Bouzid, this morning. I may be wrong, but I think the man portrayed is Mohamed Bouazizi.