Reviewed by James Karas
The timing of Tarragon Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People could not have been more apt. It comes in the middle of a long and dirty campaign where the major political parties are vying for our votes with attack ads, misleading statements, lies and every method that the imagination can conceive and their political operatives perpetrate.
The production is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play by Florian Borchmeyer for Berlin’s Schaubühne in a translation by Maria Milisavljevic. The production is explosively dramatic and reaches such emotional intensity that I found myself infuriated by what was happening.
Laura Condlin and Rick Roberts. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Borchmeyer has brought the play to the 21st century with a number of interesting changes. Ibsen’s Dr. Thomas Stockman becomes Dr. Thomasina (Laura Condlin) who is a married lesbian with a child. A number of minor characters from the original are discarded and the plot is tightened to two hours with no intermission.
The confrontation is between Thomasina, a principled medical officer, and her brother Peter, (Rick Roberts), a venal politician for whom the truth, morality and public health are meaningless in the face of the financial cost of fixing the town’s polluted water system.
Thomasina has discovered that the water system is polluted and she expects gratitude and indeed adulation for her work. She is so naïve that she has no conception of the possible political machinations that can change the opinion of a town from gratitude to contempt and make her an enemy of the people.
Laura Condlin, Tamara Podemski and David Fox. Photo: Cylla on Tiedemann
The confrontation between the siblings is so intense and dramatic as to make you want to scream. You watch a town hall crowd become a mob; you see political mendacity and manipulation to make you cringe. Condlin and Roberts give performances that are utterly outstanding.
Ibsen’s point that people can be manipulated or cave in when their self-interest confronts principles is brought home with unerring accuracy. The newspaper owner Aslaksen (Tom Barnett), the editor Hovstad (Kyle Mac) and the reporter Billing (Lyon Smith) all cave in like driveling cowards creating a depressing sight of humanity.
We all know that cigarettes do not cause any illness; guns do not kill people; coal does not pollute the atmosphere; the oil sands do not pollute; we believe what our politicians tells us.
The coup de grâce is delivered by Kiil (David Fox), Thomasina’s father-in-law, who buys up all the available shares in the polluted baths at a fire sale price for Thomasina. His plant is the cause of much of the pollution and by destroying his daughter-in-law and her findings he is assured of great financial gain.
The set by Thomas Ryder Payne is a blackboard covering the entire stage. There is chalk writing all around and when the scientific findings are distorted and denigrated, the cast whitewashes the blackboards in what seems like unnecessarily emphasizing the obvious.
Peter the politician wears a blue suit and a shirt and tie. Thomasina is dressed very casually becoming more easily attackable by the townspeople. She belongs to a rock band with her wife Katarina (Tamara Podemski) and Billing, again something the locals may not be too keen on.
The cast is superb, the directing brilliant, the adaptation riveting and the result, theatre that is spellbinding and enthralling.