An Enemy of the People

Schaubühne Berlin get Belfast fired up for change

So, I’m watching a play by Ibsen, in the Grand Opera House in Belfast, performed in German. Invited as part of Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, the Schaubühne Berlin bring perhaps the most inventive and iconoclastic piece of theatre that Belfast has seen in a very long time. And there are subtitles!

What immediately impresses is Jan Pappelbaum’s stage design and Katharina Ziemke’s wall paintings. There are chalk drawings of mobile phones and design classics like Eames chairs, while the stage itself has similar littered about. Mountains are chalked onto walls; parachutists appear on the horizon, while the sun bears the legend 'Total Eclipse'.

As foreshadowing goes, it’s not exactly subtle but then nothing is subtle in this bravura production that might reasonably self-identify as hipster from the off. Each protagonist is a skinny jean-wearing, xylophone-playing, indie band member – why they’re not soundtracking a banking advert I don’t know.

The baddie, of course, looks like he works in a bank. He is the immaculately suited Peter (Ingo Hulsmann), brother to radical scientist, Dr Thomas Stockmann (Christoph Gawenda) and the mayor of the small spa town where they live.

The word 'baddie' is entirely appropriate for the moral framework of this play: Peter is a thrusting, narcissistic incarnation of 'The Man', and he winds his way through the story like a serpent in Eden, his weasel words twisting the people against his brother, using their self interest and fear against him.

Thomas has uncovered the literal corruption at the heart of the town: the water is tainted, industrial pollution is contaminating the spa, and the sickly tourists who come to take the cure are sicker when they leave than when they arrived.

The naive Thomas, a vocal hero, believes that now he has irrefutable proof of the damage that the water is doing and must tell the world. Initially, he is surrounded by allies: Hovstad and Billing, the members of his band, are also the editors of the local paper and promise to back him to the hilt, as a way of fulfilling their own agenda and bringing down the local government.

Thomas believes that his brother, the mayor, will also be thankful for the news. This proves not to be the case, however, and the pragmatic Peter spends the rest of the play attempting to dissuade the doctor from revealing his findings. When Thomas proves resolute the mayor begins to apply pressure elsewhere.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the play is quite how unchanged Florian Borchmeyer’s updated version is from the Ibsen original. And while there is a fairly awkward tension between the IKEA advert modernism of the set and the anachronistic notion of an entire town’s fortunes being dependent on people taking a water cure, the central ideas of thwarted idealism – the myth of 'the greater good' – and Stockmann’s unflinching martyrdom, have a disturbing resonance for modern times.

If anything these themes become more relevant, more apt, something that the ensemble cast hammer home with glee. As Thomas becomes more and more isolated, and as former allies turn against him, he becomes the voice crying out in the wilderness, a lonely plea for sanity.

Or does he? His suggested measures would mean utter catastrophe: the spa would have to shut down for years to effect corrective measures and the work would bankrupt the town. In a decade they would be living in a healthy and pollution free ruin.

An alternative solution would be piecemeal, ad hoc repairs over a number of years, while Thomas himself, the spa’s doctor after all, could care for the collateral sick. Wouldn’t that be a better solution?

It is one that is open to the audience to cogitate in real time, as the fourth act sees the marginalised doctor addressing the audience directly, the house lights up, and a microphone pouncing on the opinions of the people of Belfast. Stockman’s filibustering has taken the argument much further from the spa town, and he takes us to task for selfish, greedy consumerism. Fiery local voices ring out in the auditorium.

Christoph Gawenda is excellent as Stockman, a man with a truth he must deliver regardless of the cost. He goes from grinning, slope-shouldered student radical to a paranoid wreck, proselytising on the podium. Ingo Hulsmann is great as Peter, the preening uber-politician, all faultless smiles and patrician good sense, but with violence barely banked down within him.

Ostermeier’s direction is frisky, dynamic and full of detail. The changes between scenes (which see a literal 'white-washing' at one point) are effectively done and impeccably scored. I never thought I’d hear Can’s 'Halleluwah' in the Grand Opera House, but there it is and it works a treat, pulverising and menacing in turn. 

An Enemy of the People is a stylish, brilliant production, full of passion and verve. Importantly, at a time when the arts in Northern Ireland are under serious threat, it holds up a mirror to society and asks us to make choices – asks us, in fact, to make a stand. Equally, it shows what can be accomplished in theatre with the application of wit and invention. You forget, but theatre really can be this good.

The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues in venues across the city until November 1.