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.


The Fence said...

Last night I went to a Preview of Robert Wilson's Pessoa at La Pergola in Firenze. I didn't pay anything for the ticket, but I still came out of the theatre reaching for my pocket Gramsci. I am planning a project to bring European playwrights together in the light of the recent EU Commission / Parliament statements around the terms and conditions under which artists work e.g.
But your experience - and mine - suggests something more fundamental about the commodification at work in theatre. Let us indeed have a look...

Michael Walling said...

It's in our Manifesto that "We reject the commercial model of theatre as “production”. For us, theatre is a participatory process, all aspects of which need to engage with the communities we serve. Performance is a public ritual, a ceremony that brings our communities together", and therefore we must be "more sensitive to the need to keep cultural work free of charge or very affordable."

This autumn we're doing a piece - an opera, in fact - which is completely free of charge to audiences. And we've just put in a bid for another next year where the initial run would be free because it's framed as a civic event rather than a "show".