Theatre – An Enemy of the People

Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir
Written By: Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen
Directed By: Anne-Louise Sarks

Melissa Reeves’ “brand-new version” of Ibsen’s play, written in 1882, brings An Enemy of the People right into the moment. Setting, costume and language are updated and the “enemy” is Doctor Catherine, rather than Doctor Thomas Stockmann, but the central and complex conflict between self-interest and ethical choice remains the same. However, whereas hope for the future in the original play resides with the strong and solitary individual, Reeves has imagined a different and more inclusive possibility.

Kate Mulvany (photo: Daniel Boud)

Catherine Stockmann (a charismatic Kate Mulvany with a Plibersek hair style) is a curious mixture of idealism and vanity. She unashamedly revels in compliments, is comically boastful, and is unwilling to share the kudos for her latest scheme although it would be tactful to include input from others. Catherine has been instrumental in saving the dwindling economy of a small country town through the reinvention of it as a tourist health resort based on the properties of local mineral springs.

However, in carrying out her duties as the resort’s Welling-Being and Health Consultant, Catherine begins to see symptoms that cause her to doubt the health-giving qualities of the water. She sends for a report which confirms her suspicions that the water is polluted. Despite the furor her discovery will cause, Catherine feels that the right course of action is to make the knowledge public. She takes her stand one step further, and identifies her father-in-law’s sawmill as the source of toxicity. When the wealthy elder of the town Morton (Peter Carroll) sarcastically suggests he should close the mill down, she clearly feels this would be the right solution. She does not grasp that most people have their price, and even Catherine, as Morton is to realise, can be tempted.

Catherine’s faith that, once confronted with proof the community will opt to close the resort while it undergoes rehabilitation at enormous cost, is admirable but naïve. In our current politico-economic climate (and constant revelations of commercial deception of consumers) what are the chances that any individual or group will do “the right thing” if it is likely to clash with their self-interest? In an ingenious move, Reeves turns the audience into townspeople attending a public meeting held by Catherine who, unsupported by town authorities, optimistically believes that “the people” will back her once she shows them the evidence.

Catherine’s former friends, and the town’s exclusively male power-brokers – the blustering editor of the local paper “Hovvy” (Steve Le Marquand) and his yes-man Billing (Charles Wu), her wily brother-in-law, the Mayor (Leon Ford) and Aslaksen, the mercenary president of the Small Business Association (Kenneth Moraleda), manage through heckling and misrepresentation, to turn the meeting against Catherine. The crowd, easily made fearful of losing the town’s newly found prosperity, brand her as “an enemy of the people”, assault her and deface the windows of her home. Why is it that a woman who speaks out can be so readily intimidated physically, and so universally inscribed as a “mad bitch”?

A traumatised Catherine is on the verge of leaving the town. Her 20-something daughter Petra offers her not only loyalty but compassionate support despite her grandfather’s attempt to barter Petra’s inheritance for Catherine’s cooperation. Her straight-talking cleaning lady Randine is a more complex challenge. She points out to Catherine that people from her social level aren’t interested in taking sides on issues, as whatever the outcome, the demeaning conditions of their life will not change. For a now apologetic Catherine, who has denigrated the working class at the public meeting, Randine is a wake-up call and an opportunity.

So the play comes to a comical and hopeful end as Petra and Catherine clean their home’s vandalised windows, while an almost unbelieving Randine looks on, cigarette in hand. A new alliance between women has been formed and affirmed.

The set design (Mel Page) was nicely Ibsenesque. The warmth of the prawns-on-the-barbie
opening soon dissipates, the large windows of Catherine’s home show her to be transparent and vulnerable (their conversion into a steam room rendering the Mayor opaque and devious) and the sofa, a symbol of new-found prosperity, on and around which the characters interact.

All-in-all, An Enemy of the People is a deeply engaging, wonderfully relevant and intelligent production, directed with passion and performed by a uniformly excellent cast with vigorous commitment.

October 11 – November 4, 2018.

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