Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre presents an inspired adaptation of Ibsen’s classic play An Enemy of The People
Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation of Ibsen’s classic An Enemy Of The People is currently playing at Tarragon Theatre. The staging is inspired and the adaptation itself adeptly brings all the political and philosophical musings of the original into sharp relevance to the world of today. Directed by the strong hand of Richard Rose, and with a cast of the highest calibre, it is yet another impressive offering from the Tarragon.
In a small town that survives on the tourism brought by its famous baths, Thomas Stockmann (Joe Cobden), the Chief Medical Officer of the baths, discovers that the water is contaminated with a variety of bacteria including the dreaded E.coli – which, for an Ontarian audience necessarily recalls the Walkerton tragedy. But he has kept his investigation a secret from everyone, even his loving wife Katharina (Tamara Podemski). His suspicion now confirmed, he plans to publish it in an exposé, expecting the town to immediately move the water supply, thank him, and throw a banquet in his honour.
Before the article can get published, his brother, a high powered town councillor (Rick Roberts) finds out about it. He quashes the story, so devoted to keeping the town’s income intact that he is willing to completely destroy his sibling’s reputation and livelihood. Of course, he is also motivated by fraternal resentment as well as concern about his own reputation and status.
The audience is led to sympathize with Stockmann as his friends all turn their backs on him. Things reach a fevered pitch as he calls a town meeting to discuss the issue and delivers a speech that is not about the water as much as it is about society’s corruption. He sounds so right, but then he sounds so wrong because he can’t offer any solutions that don’t smack of fascism. He is not interested in hearing what the majority decides to do, or in considering the financial impact on the town if he gets his way.
At this point the show brilliantly turns interactive. We, the audience, as attendees of the town hall are called on to answer: do we try to save our community by downplaying the truth of the situation while investigating workarounds to the problem? Or do we throw it all away, try to change the entire economic and political order, and if so, what does that even look like?
This choice had a great impact on me, as it is a train of thought that often occupies my mind. So many societal ills are intrinsically linked together and seem to be unchangeable by any currently available form of activism. But if the only answer is revolution, that means violence and is not something I could ever espouse.
The set, designed by Michelle Tracey, is a skewed perspective of black walls covered with chalk. Some of the chalk drawing and writing is done during the play itself and illustrates points or indicates the passing of time and the location of the scene. Later on, these walls are white-washed, a heavy-handed symbol but one that is worth it for the striking visual effect. And the set gets even messier from there; I felt a twinge of sympathy for the crew who has to clean up after each show and set up for the next one.
Multi-media is all the rage these days and An Enemy of the People accomplishes it nicely; one scene features a projection of revolutionary images, and live music played intermittently throughout the first part of the show. The Stockmanns and their friends Hovstad (Matthew Edison) and Billing (Brandon McGibbon) are in a band that rehearses at the Stockmann’s home. This provides a reasonable explanation as to why everyone is there when events occur, and the music provides atmosphere and thematic symbolism, such as the recurring theme of David Bowie’s “Changes.”
If I have any problem at all with the show it’s that the character of Katharina is underused. She seems to function symbolically more than as a person, and especially at the end I was unsatisfied by her interaction with her father (Richard McMillan), who has done a devious deed. Podemski does a fine job with what she has, but the adapted script doesn’t give her a lot.
This is a show that calls into question our political and economic structure, but offers no answer because there is no answer, not yet. But art and activism both have to keep working at it so that our children can have a future, especially given our imminent environmental crisis.
- An Enemy Of The People is playing until October 26th at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgeman Ave)
- Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2:30pm and select Saturdays at 2:30pm: Sept. 27, Oct. 4, Oct. 11
- Regular Tickets are $27-$53. For every performance 10% of the house is available for specially-priced $15 tickets at the door, starting at 6pm for evening performances and 1pm for matinees
- Tickets can be purchased through Patron Services at 416.531.1827 or by visiting www.tarragontheatre.com
Photo of Joe Cobden by Cylla von Tiedemann