Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre remounts its update of Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People
It’s hard to ignore the truth but it’s easy to bury it. That’s part of the problem in An Enemy of the People playing at Tarragon Theatre; a timely show that attempts to engage its audience in big ideas with some success and some failure.
The original An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen is a play that occupies that awkward space between drama and comedy but isn’t quite a dreamed, dark comedy, or satire, and it’s not for everyone. The adaptation by Florian Borchmeyer and translated by Maria Milisavljevic modernizes some of the politics for a contemporary audience.
Dr. Thomasina Stockmann (Laura Condlln) discovers that the water of the town baths is polluted and poisoning visitors. She attempts to inform her brother, politician Peter Stockmann (Rick Roberts) of the truth only to find he goes against her as the information will impact tourism and the economy. Her attempts to inform the town of her findings makes her an enemy of the people.
Condlln is amazing as Dr. Stockmann. She’s explosive, awkward, frustrated, and incredibly relatable. The decision to swap the character’s gender and sexuality was inspired because it adds so many layers to the text. Her wife Katarina Kiil is played by the wonderful Tamara Podemski who I felt was criminally underused but an integral and compelling figure.
Meanwhile, Dr. Stockmann’s enemies are all men. Roberts as Peter plays smarmy misogynist perfectly as he delivers tirades and pleas that infantilize and gaslight his sister; his only goal to shut her up to protect himself—using her ‘dangerous’ opinions to justify his actions towards her and the town. Her friends, reporter Hovstad (Kyle Mac) and Billing (Lyon Smith) and their boss Aslaksen (Tom Barnett), initially supportive of her endeavour quickly side with her brother in a moment where practical considerations paint an uncomfortable veneer of male privilege and bonding against a woman.
Finally, David Fox turns in a threatening if overacted performance as Kiil, Dr. Stockmann’s corrupt stepfather who seems dead set against his daughter’s wife. In the context of this specific production, it was hard for me not to wonder about homophobia as the root of his dislike.
Watching it as a woman was frustrating because it was so damn relatable. You could guess how reliable all those men were the minute Dr. Stockmann had an opinion that would upset their respective apple carts. The women, in striking contrast, stick fast to each other.
Certainly, afterwards, my companion couldn’t stop referring to the men as “abusive” in their dealings with Stockmann–a reading I thought was compounded by the gender-swap.
Unfortunately, the progressive politics are undermined by two things: an uncomfortable privilege and unnecessary improvisation. The elephant in the room for me was what my guest and I referred to as the Town Hall Scene.
When Dr. Stockmann takes her findings to a town meeting it deteriorates around her, becoming a fourth-wall breaking ‘debate’ between the audience and Peter and Aslaksen.
Good Lord did I not like it. Here is where An Enemy of the People loses a lot of its charm. I can see how it seems like a great idea: let the audience be the community, but the actors are playing to Conservative stereotypes and it leaves much of the exchange repetitive and one-note. Kudos to the audience for jumping in but I felt like I was back in high school.
The content in the play is super relevant but I think the text said everything better and with more verve than anything the actors could improvise.
Here, it didn’t work for me. My guest, for her part, was on the fence. She wasn’t as compelled by it and thought it went on way too long.
The other problem was the staging. With privilege being a significant component to this particular production, I thought it was odd to watch a gay woman get sidelined for such an inane portion of the scene. I thought the character and actor were sidelined which, while seemingly the point read as a production more interested in watching Roberts and Barnett be ‘likeable conservative guys.’
In this scene, these politics felt unintentional and really detracted tonally from the show. That said, I think An Enemy of the People is worth checking out. You can’t go wrong with the cast and anything with a hint of politics is, I think, good for the soul.
- An Enemy of the People plays until November 1st at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave.)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm, and Wednesday matinees Oct. 21 and 28 at 1:30pm
- Tickets range from $28-$60 with special discounts for students, seniors, groups, and arts workers.
- Tickets can be purchased online here, in-person at the Tarragon Theatre box office 2 hours before showtime, or by phone at 416-531-1827
Photo of Tamara Podemski and Laura Condlln in An Enemy of the People by Cylla von Tiedemann