As wikipedia tells it, so incensed was the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen at the public uproar following his new play Ghosts (a haunting account of a charitable mother whose son, a nice young man, goes bonkers having inherited syphilis from his slutty father), that he then wrote …
… An Enemy of the People (1882), a gripping, complex and uncomfortable play, in which a dashing rogue scientist, Dr Stockholm, discovers that the healthful waters of his hometown spa have been dangerously contaminated with shit from local industry, including that of his father in law’s tannery. Wholly confident that his public duty is to reveal the facts, he is much surprised to find himself questioned, marginalised then rigorously isolated by a ‘united front’ of politicians and press all claiming to speak in defence of public interest.
In El Enemic del Poble, a Catalan language adaptation, director Miguel del Arco and playwright Juan Mayorga bring up to date everything that most infuriated Ibsen about the ‘moral reaction’ to Ghosts. The actor Pere Arquillué is excellent as the former-day environmental engineer whose frustration before the ‘procrastination front’ edges him into fanaticism. In a brilliant scene, members of the stage-public insert themselves among the audience-public to holler their disgust. They shout down the doctor for all manner of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with his data, which, in fact, they are already aware of. Citing democracy, subjectivity, freedom of speech, this public’s only real interest is that of prohibiting Dr Stockholm from speaking at all.
In the background, an enormous network of piping and an incessant splish-sploshing evoke murky waters that pool visibly on stage. The setting serves as a reminder that irrefutable facts remain looming above, while those responsible for them blow verbal bubbles at each other below. The original Norwegian is full of untranslatable puns, apparently, and certainly words and their shifty meanings are key to the piece. What constitutes ‘the people’? How do you untangle all our individual interests and call the majority of the mulch that emerges ‘public opinion’?
Roger Casamajor is the strutting, handsome mayor Peter Stockholm, the younger brother of the doctor who competes with his elder for the limelight. Jordi Martinez plays local business representative Aslaksen, a sinister figure who repeatedly assures us that he is a ‘moderate’ – whatever that is. Pablo Derqui and Mónica López play journalists Hovstadt and Billing with a thoroughly convincing blend of slimy superiority. Their fickle paper, The People’s Messenger, clearly thinks little of its public. In a key scene added to the Ibsen play, Dr Stockholm’s savvy daughter Petra (Andrea Ros) questions whether a crappy inane magazine published by the paper for its young readership, actually answers to demand or patronises it.
Yet even the good doctor is debatable, resorting to abstract, slippery terms. He pleas for ‘freethinking’ towards the greater common good – as does, in a sense, everyone else in the play. He even comes round to embracing the name ‘enemy of the people’ having simply adjusted it so that it seems flattering to him; he blithely condemns the majority’s rules, and sets himself above and beyond society.
In this almost sold out production, in which bits of Ibsen’s poems have been fashioned into Catalan songs and are sung to us by Miquel Fernández / Capitan Horster, who has a really nice voice, truth itself would seem to shift: individual interests amassed into tides of public opinion surge and wane. Yet the truths that we are dealing with here aren’t subjective, of course, no matter how much we might want them to be. They stay put, plump and hovering, while we do our silly dances below.
Un Enemic del Poble
Teatre Lliure until February 22, 2014
English subtitles provided on Saturday nights, 9pm
Click here for a ticket
THANK YOU to Ros Ribas for the photos.