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Reviewed by:
  • An Enemy of the People
  • Tom Woldt
An Enemy of the People. By Henrik Ibsen. Royal National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, London. 4 May 1998.

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Figure 1.

Ian McKellen as Dr. Tomas Stockmann and Kai Pearce as Morton Stockmann in the Royal National Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People, directed by Trevor Nunn. Photo: Gautier Deblonde.

Although neither Trevor Nunn, director of such epics as Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby, nor the immense Olivier Theatre in London’s Royal National Theatre complex spring directly to mind when one thinks of Henrik Ibsen’s realistic interior dramas, the confluence of those two with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role made for a provocative theatrical event. Although at times this production resembled a Nunn-directed musical more than an exploration of realism, Christopher Hampton’s new translation of An Enemy of the People successfully inaugurated Mr. Nunn’s appointment as the Royal National Theatre’s Artistic Director.

An Enemy of the People is one of the few prose plays by Ibsen in which the fickle middle class he so often attacks appears on stage as a large group. Apparently extrapolating from the public meeting scene in act 4, Nunn and scenic designer John Napier reconfigured some of the dynamics of the play. Napier dispensed with the intricacies of nineteenth-century interiors in favor of a sprawling, revolving evocation of a Norwegian village skyline. Dozens of identical rooftops and facades of houses served as an expansive back wall. A huge water tank towered over the center of a large revolve unit, dwarfing the selectively realistic acting areas located in and around the tank’s scaffolding. These omnipresent community exteriors and the implied sanctity of the water in the tank stood in ominous relief over the Stockmann family living room and the newspaper office, just as community politics would eventually dwarf Dr. Stockmann’s campaign for truth.

Nunn utilized similar strategies in his bold and frequent use of teeming crowd scenes to punctuate transitions between acts. The excessively mannered opening moments of the production, which saw enthusiastic citizens and a marching band crossing jauntily forward and back across the revolving stage could have been lifted directly from Nunn and Napier’s Les Miserables, but might have been better suited for Carousel. Subsequent transitions were more effective, however. Darker, more subtle in tone, and peopled by less ebullient community members, these moments reinforced not only the presence of the mass of people who would render Dr. Stockmann’s demise, but also their teeming restlessness, which would explode in contact with Stockmann’s arrogance.

Nunn also altered the dynamics of the public hearing in act 4. By placing the scene in a public exterior rather than the large room for which Ibsen calls, and by disseminating the mob of attendees in the aisles throughout the Olivier Theatre, the director captured the aura of the quickly rising wave of antagonism which would eventually crash over Dr. Stockmann. This staging also challenged the audience members to see themselves as participants in the skirmish.

The director made similar choices for the final moments of the production. Where Ibsen’s text ends with Stockmann home alone speaking quietly with his family, after having been shouted down by the crowd, Nunn chose to bring back the mob in the waning moments of act 5 to redouble its violent attack on Stockmann. The doctor and his family scrambled frantically to the top of Napier’s scaffolding in the center of the revolve, buffeted by both real and amplified shouting. Standing alone on a small precipice with his family, encircled by a frenzied crowd below, the Doctor bellowed literally from the rooftop, “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone,” just before the lights snapped to black and the attackers went silent (An Enemy of the People [London: Faber and Faber, 1997], 130). In this chilling, albeit overstated tableau, Nunn illustrated, as he has in other productions, his uncanny ability to synthesize naked theatrical contrivance and raw visceral power.

This production’s emphasis on spectacle, coupled with the immensity of the Olivier space, was not always...

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pp. 69-71
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