In Thomas Ostermeier’s version of ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, we have met the people and they are us. In one of the cleverer manipulations of a Naturalist drama that I have seen, a genre of activist political theater is snuck right into the middle of Ibsen’s ironic critique of democracy and its discontents.
The play, of course, deals with a whistle-blowing doctor, Thomas Stockmann, in a small town whose inhabitants have been enriched by a spa whose water supply has become contaminated. Arthur Miller saw in Stockmann a kindred spirit in opposition to McCarthyism, but in Ibsen the doctor is a more ambiguous figure, caught up in the righteousness not only of his cause but of his own person. When he addresses the town’s citizens, his palpable self-regard undermines any hope of persuading the people to act against their short-term economic interests. In the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz production (this is a German import), Stockmann becomes a principled but incoherent ranter who pushes the ideological buttons of the contemporary left but fails, as so often happens, to propound a viable course of action. His speech has been updated by the dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer to include excerpts from what the show’s blurb identifies as “the incendiary 2008 political manifesto ‘The Coming Insurrection’.”
This document, with which I am not familiar, appears to advocate a return-to-nature program of “personal austerity,” a vision of individual vegetable gardens and stay-at-home vacations for all. This sounds like the paradox of thrift gone mad, especially if taken as a riposte to the collective austerity that Ostermeier’s current Chancellor and the U.S. House of Representatives have imposed upon our respective continents. It was, though, sufficiently indignant in its language to prompt applause from the opening night audience, upon whom the lights came up, and then, calls from the house for “revolution,” condemnations of Western democracy’s history of exclusion, and the ritual denunciation of Monsanto. I do not disagree with these sentiments as a whole, but it is revealing the extent to which they echo Stockmann’s righteousness rather than offer solutions to the imbalances of wealth and power that have unbalanced our democratic institutions. The ingenious stagecraft that solicited them is based on the methods of the late director-theorist Augusto Boal, merging Forum Theatre, which enfranchises audiences as political actors, and Invisible Theatre, which is practiced upon unsuspecting audiences for political purposes.
That one is watching an innovative but “normal” production hitherto is what gives the unexpected forum its impact. There is something touching, before the Boalian moment, about the ease with which the actors relate to each other, as though they really were the friends and family members they play, albeit with spousal disputes and sibling rivalries. There is modern music – the setting has been thoroughly contemporized – sung and played by the actors, in the comforting tone of a hobby or a personal project. Eva Meckbach is an up-to-date and charismatic Mrs. Stockmann, remarkably graceful and psychologically present, and David Ruland, as Aslakson, does yeoman’s work as moderator of the Forum Theatre segment.
As the political conflict links up with the personal tensions of the story, one gets a glimpse of where the self-interest that can corrupt a democratic system might have its beginnings. The staging reflects the moral ambiguities of the situation, following an act of literal white-washing with, if you will, one of grey-washing: Stefan Stern’s paint-spattered Stockmann is the poster image one passes going in and out of the theater. This is an invigorating experience, however sobering its portrayal of the limits that democracy hits when human nature, our nature, even at its most well-meaning, intervenes.
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