An Enemy of the People – Chaos and The Real in the absence of a hero. (Theatre Review)

Kate Mulvany

An Enemy of the People

Belvoir Street Theatre

7  October to 4 November. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Brett Boardman

An immediate point of interesting difference between Melissa Reeves adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and the (in)famous Arthur Miller version is the sublimation of our heroes’ journey in the 2018 narrative. For Arthur Miller, Dr. Stockman becomes a hero as exemplified in his closing stage direction: He walks upstage toward the windows as a wind rises and the curtains start to billow out toward him. The curtain falls. No such glamour of aloneness is afforded this female version of Dr. Stockman, for we’d never believe it in 2018. We’ve seen too many female warriors attacked and vilified in public in far worse ways than men like Brett Kavanaugh can stand. Melissa Reeves cleverly retains her Dr. Stockman’s foolishness, the clumsy classism and the debilitating whiteness. The battle made Millers Dr. Stockman a better man, suddenly a political/spiritual icon, while our new warts and all feminine version takes up responsibility simply when the ability to do so arrives at her door. Courage is a sword one wields to go into battle, it is not a character trait. The true horror at the throbbing heart of Melissa Reeves interpretation is that we can all do what Dr. Stockman did, we do not have to be Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Arthur Miller’s Dr. Stockman. Dr. Stockman’s early ascent is naive, but her determination to remain in the town and defend information despite her flaws and her justified fears is the true shock of Ibsen’s narrative. It is in the mundanity and the absence of dramatic glamour that the heroes journey is found and that the real work of utility can progress.

However, Melissa Reeves brings us closer to accuracy when she eliminates the swinging moods of ego and the linear conclusions of hero mentality. An Enemy of the People is a complex logic. We are never sure where the moral ecological system of truth-telling will take us. There are many ecologies competing here: environmental ecology of polluted water, organizational ecology of the Spa trying to bring tourists (jobs and money) into the town and the social ecology of wealth, profit and power. The polluted water becomes a metaphor for the corruption of society and its members, particularly those with any power.  Arthur Miller’s Dr. Stockman may start out as a naive fool, but eventually he ‘knows’ as in sense-making one has to ‘know.’ He has a trajectory. A plan. When Melissa Reeves evokes Ibsen, she has no trust in such sense-making or in a socially desirable or sanctioned ‘truth.’ As we are coming to understand all too well today complexity theory includes a realisation that even socially motivated labelling (retrospective or futuristic) may not to justice to motives, circumstances or evolving change. We can’t rely on a socially anchored formality where subjects decide upon what it is they pragmatically need to know. There are no heroes at the top of the tree of knowledge. Ibsen clearly tries to debunk such ethical opportunism as does Melissa Reeves.[1]

Kate Mulvany

The challenge for the audience, indeed the problem at the heart of hero desirability is that the basic themes of moral responsibility and truth and the resulting actions, thought and results remain ethically unresolved. The Mayor remains in power having used the conflicts of the polluted waters to eliminate his enemies and bring the town together under his leadership. Our good doctor retains her moral high ground however compromised she may be by right-ness, good-ness or white-ness. The inherent hesitant doubt of good and evil, morality and effectiveness, self interest and common good remain. Just as today we are beset by conflicting public agendas in our political world, so it has (effectively) always been.

Catherine Davis

And so, we come to this latest production of An Enemy of the People at Belvoir directed with a skillful simplicity by Anne-Louise Sarks. Resting on the shoulders of a magnificent performance by Kate Mulvany as Dr. Stockman, we see an excellent interpretation of Melissa Reeves’ interpretation of the Ibsen original, harking back to the intrinsic chaos at the core of social engagement and the will to power. Fighting the good fight has never been as unglamorous or practical now that women are engaged, as we disavow the mysticism at the heart of hero-worship; this includes, of course, Henrik Ibsen himself – but we’ll leave that for another chat another time. In the absence of answers, Melissa Reeves and Anne-Louise Sarks choose to call forth the will to power in those who choose to stand for something larger than themselves, with a clean and clear call for respect and joy in a willful collaboration. You can’t negotiate with no body, and we all have to be in the room for something to happen. In Anne-Louise Sarks cohesive and collaborative effort, the warm respect afforded those in the room becomes the most important message of An Enemy of the People.  A moral in the absence of morality.

An Enemy of the People is also timely as mini versions of the play pop up the world over in response to the current political climate. Melissa Reeves rescues Ibsen’s play from becoming engulfed in reactionary politics – and does us a great service in the process. Special note should be made of Mel Page’s set design which gives the production a minimalist air that works well plus one of the best jokes of the play. This is a rousing and evocative production of An Enemy of the People that will leave you feeling energized and potent. Take your friends.

Kenneth Moreleda and Leon Ford



[1] See Tom Eide’s interesting paper on Understood Complexity here: Understood complexity: Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’—On complexity, sense-making, understanding, and exit/voice/loyalty