As we waited for the start, the acid yellow-and-steel chairs forming the opening dining room set were framed by figures lurking in the rear penumbra, and I was unsure of the nature of this half-revealed space: Office? Study? Or could it even be a production tech. area? As I wondered, our five players appeared with jerky, marionette-like steps before breaking into madcap gambolling to a blast of Mexican dance music, chucking tacos high into the air and catching them in their mouths.
The canny thing about Robin Colyer's direction is that his tricks are ever at the service of his and Anna Glynn's updated text and of Ibsen's themes. Thus, for instance, the choice of music darkens and slips into a minor key in tune with the downward trajectory of the fortunes of Dr Tamsin Stockmann (Leonie Spilsbury), the local Medical Officer, as her discovery of faecal bacteria in the newly-popular spa town's waters threatens to derail the gravy train of tourist-driven local prosperity.
Messrs. Colyer and Glynn have clearly thought hard about what to leave and what to change or cut, and sensibly they've allowed Ibsen's narrative and timeless argument to emerge loud and clear from its updating to the Twitter age. Thus the narrative progresses in clear stages: in stage 1, Dr Stockmann's report is hailed as a model of investigation, whose remedial proposals - the closure of the spa for wholesale drainage works - is welcomed with zeal. Stage 2 sees the doctor's brother, the Mayor (Ben Ashton), launch a counter-attack: 'you have big, butterfly ideas.... you'll be on next year's women's power list for sure!, he tells her. We then move inexorably through the playing by the Mayor of the card marked 'duty of confidentiality by an employee', and then on to threats and family rupture.
The two other movers-and-shakers in town are Billing the newspaper editor (Robert Durbin) and Aslaksen of the Chamber of Commerce (Owen Jenkins), and they too take us through defined stages along a shifting parabola. First the sanitation report is hailed as a bombshell scoop – quick, print it! Second thoughts then begin to blur the energy of disclosure and action ('yes, [we want] a riot, but with moderation!'), caution is urged and full pressure again comes on from the Mayor to his sister: ('You misrepresented your case..... it's not in the public interest'. For Dr Stockmann triumph turns into chagrin almost before the ink's dry on her report.
The play's narrative is tense and involving enough on its own, but Ibsen crams in a network of themes that burn as bright and urgent now after 136 years as they did on minting day. Is there a valid distinction between private and public viewpoints and responsibilities? What duty does one owe to one's conscience and professional standards, and what to the livelihood of the people around one? To whom do facts belong? How far ought one to go in pursuit of truth when that very pursuit may lead to the harming if not destruction of reputation and family? At what point does principle become intransigence? These ethical questions have been kicked around since Aristotle was a lad in the 4th century BC; they are on view this very week both at the Tory Party Conference and in Washington at the Senate Supreme Court validation hearing.
As the third plank in the structure of this drama, alongside its tense narrative and thematic complexity, Robin Colyer's direction succeeds with style and novelty in breaking down the virtual wall between players and audience, and never more so than in the public meeting just before the interval where inventive use of sound and plenty of controlled acting fury brings every audience member urgently into the debate. The actors further blur their personae by engaging with us in the interval, casting another slant upon the private/public dichotomy of identity that's at the heart of the drama.
I would just mention the timing of the interval which I thought came a little late and left the second half feeling a trifle truncated, and also the one false step all evening came, I thought, in the form towards the end of a long monologue, a tirade of accusation and self-justification from Dr Stockmann. Ibsen filled his original text with imagery from a menagerie and the farmyard but the language here came over as a prosaic rant, and Leonie Spilsbury stood and delivered this in a hectoring monotone, a blip in an otherwise quite lively performance.
Ben Ashton makes of his mayor a smooth-talking but hickory-hard politician, while Robert Durbin gives his editor of the People's Messenger's just a little hesitation and more than a little bluster. Owen Jenkins switches deftly between roles and voices as the local business magnate and a faux-devoted uncle, and Nazerene Williams spoke and moved with such grace as Dr Stockmann's daughter that I was sorry her character all but vanished from the action in the later stages.
The show runs until Saturday. If you like your drama bursting with ideas, directed with force and style and fireworks galore, then this Enemy of the People demands to be seen.