An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Florian Borchmeyer, Toronto staging by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, running to Nov. 1.
On both the page and Tarragon’s stage, An Enemy of the People culminates with a rousing speech condemning the lengths to which politicians, business leaders, the media, and the people they represent will go to protect their interests at the expense of others.
For those who didn’t study the frighteningly timeless 133-year-old play in school, it centres around the crusading Dr. Stockmann (Thomas Stockmann in the original, but played here by Laura Condlin as Thomasina “Tommi” Stockmann), who learns the hot springs forming the spine of her town’s economy have been contaminated by a nearby factory.
She then discovers, to her further dismay, that her social circle (led by her politician brother Peter, played by Rick Roberts) would rather suppress the information than reveal it.
Hence the climax, where Dr. Stockmann is forced to deliver her message at a raucous town hall meeting and, in the original play, produces this cherry on top of a vitriolic sundae:
“What does the destruction of a community matter, if it lives on lies? It ought to be razed to the ground,” the good doctor shouts, making enemies of the remaining townspeople in the process.
Oddly enough, you won’t hear that line if you attend Tarragon’s production. It’s likely you won’t see the townspeople turning against Dr. Stockmann either, because the show casts you – yes, you, and the rest of the audience – as the townspeople.
Instead of the long, frequently interrupted monologue of the original play, Dr. Tommi Stockmann only gets far enough to say that last year’s tourists became sick because the town’s hot springs are contaminated, which her brother interrupts by asking if that’s a good reason to shutter the town’s economy for two years and put everyone’s livelihood at stake.
They wait for you to respond, and the evening’s 20-minute improvisational highlight begins.
By the time you read this in print, Canada’s next government will have been chosen, but my guess — and, judging from the program notes, Tarragon’s — is that the recent election will have made the audience particularly sympathetic to a cause echoing the 21st-century scientists who have been prevented by government officials from releasing inconvenient information about Walkerton’s water quality, or the environmental impacts of fracking, or building a pipeline, or climate change. I expect those audience members will then be more likely to confront Peter than Tommi, as ours did. (Though I’ll admit, the reverse would have made for even more riveting theatre.)
But the real question that Ibsen, and Tarragon, are interested in answering is: what would happen in real life? The play’s abstract set design illustrates its cynical answer: Messages scrawled in chalk across a wall-to-wall blackboard — “This is a test. The eyes of the world are watching”; in French, “I participate, you participate, she participates, he participates, you (plural) participate, we participate, they profit” — are literally whitewashed halfway through the show.
At the meeting, when Tommi finally shouts over the din of her colleagues — who, for better or worse, are very good at talking the audience down — it’s with a torrent of words from “The Coming Insurrection,” an online anti-neo-Liberalism manifesto that hits with the same blunt-force implication of Ibsen’s original work: that ideals driven by equality, no matter how well delivered, will ultimately be incorporated and subsumed by the unequal majority.
There are other clues: the punkish musician (Lyon Smith) who performs acoustic rock covers of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and David Bowie’s “Changes” before turning against Tommi; her wife Katarina (Tamara Podemki)’s plea her to think of their family, echoing an argument that people protesting their marriage might have used; and ultimately, a challenging finish involving Tommi’s father-in-law (David Fox) that either subverts the original ending or stays bracingly true to its spirit, depending on your point of view.
Tellingly, the show has no credited director. Instead, German playwright/director Florian Borchmeyer, who staged a 2013 production in Berlin that was seen by Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose, is credited with an “adaptation” that Rose, credited with “staging,” has apparently done his best to reproduce faithfully in English.
Watching the show, it’s obvious what attracted Rose to Borchmeyer’s take on this material. It’s powerful stuff, alive like few productions I’ve seen. I cannot recommend it highly enough.