BWW REVIEW: Ibsen Is Updated For The 21st Century With Melissa Reeve's Adaptation Of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
Thursday 11th October 2018, 8pm, Belvoir St Theatre
Melissa Reeve turns Henrik Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE upside down to speak to a new generation gender politics, media manipulation, and power plays in the middle classes. Stunning performances work with unusual directorial choices to draw the audience in to the conversation whilst still getting to view the machinations from afar.
Whilst the Norwegian Ibsen's original was published in 1882 there are many aspects of the work that remain relevant for 21st century Australia. Reeve blends these timeless concerns with contemporary values and social structures to give women and the working class a greater voice. Reeve strips back the characters from Ibsen's 12 to 8 to simplify the story. Central character Dr Katherine Stockmann (Kate Mulvany) is presented as a widowed mother of an only child, Petra (Nikita Waldron), a young politically minded teacher's aide at the local school. Having gone off the rails after her husband's death, Katherine has returned to her home town to take on the position of Wellness Consultant at the town's new fancy Spa for well to do people to sit in baths of the rejuvenating mineral waters and receive relaxing massages and beauty treatments. The town is building it's reputation as a tourist destination because of the mineral waters to the delight of Katherine's big brother and Mayor Peter (Leon Ford), local newspaper editor and friend Hovstad (Steve La Marquand) and his simpering sidekick Billing (Charles Wu) and Aslaksen, the leader of the Small Business Committee with an overinflated ego but this is set to be derailed with Katherine's intention to release a report on the Spa's water quality, a supply separate to the town's drinking water. Suspected to be tainted with heavy metals from Katherine's father in law Morton's (Peter Carroll) saw mill, battles form on a range of levels, from the right for the public to be informed and educated, to a new generation of women against the establishment of old men and also a bribe of a child's inheritance for a retraction of the claims. Relying on the average demographic of Belvoir's subscriber base, the work also includes a moment of truth and quite stunning awakening as Katherine's intelligent and informed house cleaner Randine (Catherine Davies) reminds the audience that at the centre of the town's debate is a middle class, privileged problem and that has little bearing on the lives of those that live from paycheck to paycheck and will never see the inside of a facility like the spa.
As the story seeks to give a look at the behind the scenes of dealing and scheming of politics, commerce and media manipulation Set and Costume designer Mel Page has set much of the work inside the Katherine's living room with widows providing a physical barrier. This style of set has been utilized by a lot of designers of late and whilst generally proving annoying and somewhat tedious in its repeated use it also serves to distance the audience from the work. The particular selection of frames for these window and sliding doors are of a substantial thickness alienating the audience even more than usual. Regardless of where people are sitting, the frames are bound to obscure the view of the performers, particularly their faces, at some point and for some length parts of the production. The garden scenes in Katherine's back yard and outside the Wellness spa along with the opening of the second act where Katherine addresses the community keeps the performance in front of the glass box. The community meeting scene utilizes the audience as part of the scene, finally connecting with the audience and engaging with them before returning to the restrictive fishbowl of a home. Whilst the scenes at Katherine's home are lit with a relative simplicity focusing on the contents of the box, Verity Hampson's lighting plays a bigger role in the community address as whilst the audience remains relatively illuminated, focus is kept on the sole microphone and the petite Mulvany as she speaks out against the establishment who often tower over her physically as well as socially. Stefan Gregory's composition and sound design helps reiterate the battle Katherine is facing but the sound is often over amplified causing distortion and an intensity that stops serving the story.
Mulvany is captivating as the indominable doctor determined to inform the community but hampered by the men of the community who she thought were friends and family. As always, Mulvany delivers a passionate but real performance filled with truth and reality ensuring that the female fight to be heard is clear. She is joined in the fight for the female voice and the truth to be heard by Waldron and Davies who assist in providing variations on the argument and passion for the fight. Waldron provides a voice for the younger as Petra is labelled as an anarchist for speaking out in support of her mother. Her performance has the awkwardness of youth whilst still infused with the determination and belief that they can change the world with a vlog. As the cleaning lady, Davies gives Randine a rather cultured and educated voice for a high school dropout who is working multiple jobs to support her children and drug addicted brother and his girlfriend. Davies ensures that Randine is seen as grounded whilst still informed of the world around her and Reeves has given her what is potentially an even more powerful new message than Katherine's fight in the realization that it is the middle and upper classes that decide on matters whilst the working classes at the bottom of the ladder are too busy trying to seek out a survival and keep a roof over their heads. She delivers this final message with passion and power and a calmness when the audience is expecting rebuke from Katherine's harsh words at the meeting. To an audience filled with the same type of people that would have been in the town hall meeting, Randine's message is possibly the most important.
The men of the work are presented as stereotypes to a great degree, given little depth and compassion or moral backbone focusing more on commerce and greed of the situation than the welfare of the patrons of the Spa. Carroll ensures Morten is suitably vindictive and spiteful. Le Marquand makes sure Hovstad is seen as a typical modern day media type after a story rather than the facts whilst Wu ensures that his assistant Billings is the picture of a young ambitious journalist eager to please the people in power. Ford's portrayal of the mayor makes sure that there are multiple levels of control at play as Peter holds it over his sister that she owes him for rescuing her from ruin after the death of her husband, renting her a home and securing her a job. Moraleda oozes the oiliness of a merchant out to ensure his business and his social standing is inflated wherever possible then siding with the power brokers when he sees the shine wear off Katherine.
An engaging modern expression of an old work proving that some things never change. Hopefully people will come away from AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE with a new perspective on who really controls the world and what is considered important and what information is shared along with a realization that there is more than just privileged problems that need to be dealt with.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE