An Enemy of the People at Belfast Festival

It caused a riot in Argentina – now Schaubühne Berlin brings its incendiary version of Ibsen's play to Belfast

'Politics is broken!' 'Cigarette companies are making people smoke then denying responsibility!' 'What about the bankers?' 'It’s just like Rotherham!' 'The BBC was completely biased in its coverage of the Scottish referendum...'

These incensed, weirdly disconnected sentiments do not emanate from a rowdy studio audience at The Nolan Show, nor from an unusually lively edition of Question Time, but rather from the packed house at London’s Barbican Theatre, gathered together for the opening night of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People – or rather, the Schaubühne Berlin’s ground-breaking, rock’n’roll take on it.

It is a huge coup for Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's director Richard Wakeley to have secured the Irish premiere of this internationally acclaimed production and the first visit to Northern Ireland of this remarkable company, with its much talked-about, larger-than-life director.

Founded in 1967, the Schaubühne is one of Germany’s national treasures. Since 1999, it has been headed by the uber-cool Bavarian-born, East Berlin-trained theatre maker Thomas Ostermeier, who did for it what he has done for so many classic plays in the company’s bulging portfolio.  

Ostermeier approached the piece without fear, took it by the scruff of the neck, gave it a damned good shaking, introduced some audacious modifications then quietly stood back and watched the world roar its approval.

Just an hour before the lights go up on this keenly anticipated UK premiere, Ostermeier is relaxed, philosophical and in the mood for a chat. He jokes that his close-knit ensemble of actors, unsurprisingly, don’t wish to rehearse this close to the performance, so he is happy to settle in for a leisurely bout of reflection on his life, his work and his forthcoming jaunt to Belfast.

'I’m really looking forward to Belfast because I haven’t been before,' he comments.  'I don’t really decide to go anywhere, it’s more the case that I go everywhere where I am invited. Because your festival thought it was a good idea to bring our show, I agreed. And I am happy that I did agree because I have never been there so, yeah, that’s interesting.'

Ostermeier ascribes the near-hysterical universal response across Europe to An Enemy of the People as being possibly a case of 'the right play for the right time'. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of his fearless revision of Ibsen’s po-faced, slightly underwhelming drama is the way in which it has repeatedly struck a strong chord of recognition since it was first staged in the summer of 2012 at the Festival d’Avignon.

The audience’s attention is engaged from the off, as Ibsen’s original dinner party scenario is replaced by that of a group of hip young friends, eating pasta in a trendy, bohemian kitchen while rehearsing their musical repertoire, which includes David Bowie’s signature 'Changes' and Jackson Browne’s haunting 'These Days'.

The play’s central character is Dr Thomas Stockmann, a brilliant scientist who discovers that the source of drinking water in his native spa town has been polluted by industrial effluence. He intends to publish his findings and demand that the city council re-route the water pipes.

Influential public figures and journalists pledge their support. However, his brother Peter, a local councillor, raises concerns that the town’s economic prosperity will be threatened and that its citizens will have to bear the brunt of the repair costs. Suddenly support for Stockmann begins to wane, seeds of doubt are sown and attempts at a cover-up are made.

But Stockmann remains undeterred. In a rousing speech at a public meeting, he puts his convictions on the line, thereby risking a rift with his brother and the prospect of of becoming a social outcast. By now, his target has become society as a whole. Ibsen’s drama teeters between honesty and fanaticism, posing the question as to what is the potential for transparency in a commercialised society?

During Stockmann’s address, the house lights come on and the actors step down into the stalls, from where they invite comment and live debate. It is a thrilling shattering of the fourth wall between stage and audience and a brilliantly innovative reinvention of the notion of live interactive theatre.

And Ostermeier puts a daring new twist on the ending, throwing choice back onto Stockmann and his wife and posing the tantalising question: 'In similar circumstances, what would you do?'

When the Schaubühne production played in New York in November 2013, debate erupted about corruption in the ranks of the New York Times, claiming that shareholder values were the only things the paper cared about. Ostermeier recalls a woman being in tears as a fellow audience member went off on a five-minute rant.

A month previously, at a theatre festival in Buenos Aires, enraged audience members even came to blows, much to the delight of cast and director. 'It was just great,' says Ostermeier, grinning broadly. 'These people got so engaged in the topic of attempted cover-up that they forgot about the show. We wanted to see if a political debate in the audience could, just once, go that far. It did, but never since. And I didn’t mind at all.

'Everywhere I go, every town thinks that this is the perfect spot for this play. Probably you will say the same now, concerning your political situation, which I cannot tell you anything about because you know much better than I do. I am just curious to go there and to understand more. One of my most favourite books was Eureka Street (by Belfast writer Robert McLiam Wilson). I really loved the book and it gave me a deeper insight into your town.'

The Schaubuhne’s repertoire encompasses a heady mixture of the great dramatic works of world literature alongside contemporary plays from internationally acclaimed writers. For all his theatrical audacity and left-of-centre approach, respect for the heart and the soul of the original text underpins every Ostermeier production.

He has said repeatedly that Ibsen is far from being one of his favourite writers, yet the list of credits by the Norwegian writer is growing steadily. 'I’m always falling back on Ibsen or every now and then putting him on stage because he provides me with some conflict, which you can read easily as conflict of nowadays.

'The core of the play is, for me, the most important thing, but not so much like being truthful to every line that has been written. He is quite a mechanical, well-made playwright and this brings me a strong plot, strong situations and a strong storyline. Then with this scaffolding I can bring in my little ideas, changing lines and adapting it to now.'

Ostermeier clearly revels in playing with an audience, providing them with shocks, involving them in the action by flagging up their own, sometimes problematic, life experiences. But he rejects the notion of manipulation, preferring the show to work its own alchemy and describing himself as merely 'a traveller, following our own experience in a surprised, amazed way'.

And he has plenty of opportunities to do just that, with his work currently circulating around London, Dublin, Seoul and three productions in rep back home in Berlin. A year ago, this piece prompted accusations of German propaganda in Istanbul; in spring, it will be performed in Tehran; and he is currently finding the money to take it to Sarajevo, Ramallah and India, where he has been invited three times.  

Ostermeier says it breaks his heart to turn down an invitation, particularly in areas of conflict or social deprivation. In two weeks' time, the company will perform in Russia, where, over the years, he has been a regular visitor.

'Naturally, there has been a lot of discussion within the company about going there at this time, but I think it is very important that artists go and try to keep this thin line of exchange and communication open,' he argues. He concedes that, not so long ago, companies like his would have been voicing similar anxieties about the prospect of playing in Belfast. 'Definitely,' Ostermeier agrees.  

'Part of my company is from East Germany, and older than I am. For instance, the lady who does our make-up is always saying you cannot imagine how important it was for us East German people when there were big artists or companies coming to the GDR, so don’t let yourself be caught in this trap of boycotting. So I come to Belfast completely convinced that it is right for us to come there.'

The Schaubühne Berlin’s An Enemy of the People is one of the great productions of our time and a genuine festival event. Nobody should be put off by the fact that it is performed in German, with English subtitles. The time simply flies by under sublime acting and thrilling storytelling. Miss it at your peril.

An Enemy of the People runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from October 23 – 25 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.