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BWW Review: 'AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE' Gets Lost in Translation

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Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play An Enemy of the People is a powerful examination of the difficult and disturbing relationship between truth and power. It examines what happens to a scientist, Dr. Stockmann, and his family when he exposes ugly truths about health concerns related to the economically-vital baths in his town, and the social, political, and familial ramifications involved in his decision to stand by his work.

An Enemy of the People is currently onstage at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre (through October 26th), in a translation that director Richard Rose recently told NOW Toronto "makes changes that bring issues like the oil sands, fracking, Walkerton and the cod fisheries into focus."

The Ostermeier production was adapted by Florian Borchmeyer; here it's translated into English by award-winning playwright and director Maria Milisavljevic, who is currently the Tarragon's international playwright-in-residence. While there's contemporary lexicon usage (Thomas describes the controversial baths as "one big shithole") and modern allusions in the form of culture (Bowie's "Changes" get an over-enthusiastic workout) and medical ailments (IBS), there's still something oddly distant about the whole affair, as if we're looking at a dated piece of political theatre from the early 1990s. This production desperately wants its issues and characters to be as black and white as the chalkboards and writing that constitute its stark, striking set design, and yet it's undermined by a strong ensemble who bring compelling shades of gray, offering a humanity that points back to Ibsen's difficult work.

However, there's little that brings Rose's Enemy fully into the present, despite some noble if dimly-conceived attempts. The insertion of certain elements distances the dramatic urgency of the original material, and lessens the immediacy its director intends. When Stockmann (Joe Cobden), his wife Katharina (Tamara Podemski), friend and editor of the local newspaper Hovstad (Matthew Edison) and writer Billing (Brandon McGibbon) break into song near the start of the piece ("Changes"), the audience is subject to a jarring tonal shift that does nothing to maintain dramatic momentum or illuminate Stockmann's curious, troubled relationship with his older brother, politician Peter (Rick Roberts), with whom he just had a fight. When Billing plays a guitar-and-voice version of "Survivor" by Destiny's Child later, it feels less like a character sketch or an anticipation of future events than another amusing if wholly unnecessary distraction. These musical interludes shares something with a later scene involving a passionate, secret kiss between Hovstad and Katharina: they are contrived tangents that undermine the drama, diversions that go nowhere (for the audience or the characters), and illuminate the limitations of Milisavljevic's translation.

It's worth noting that what is left out here is just as odd as what is included. No mention is made of the internet or digital culture whatsoever, and that's a notable hole for a play that examines power, inequality, and the high cost of whistle-blowing. Assistant director David Jansen writes in his (lengthy) program notes about the "(f)reewheeling translations of (Ibsen)'s work" and gives international examples of Enemy's adaptation across different eras and cultures - but offering a 2014 production/translation/adaptation with nary a mention of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange feels bizarre, especially given the translation's tendency to re-assert its own timeliness, even including at one point, an interactive element in which audience members (in the form of a "town forum") are encouraged to state their opinions and ideas around the play's themes of democracy and speaking truth to power.

An Enemy of the People's saving grace is its ensemble of talented performers, who rise above the contrived concept and underwhelming translation. As politician Peter Stockmann, Rick Roberts offers a highly watchable, charismatic portrait of a man who is far more than a cliched bad guy. An ambitious figure with equally explosive temper, Peter is clearly tired of being a saviour to his younger brother, Thomas, who we see, at least initially, is just as interested in fame and in building himself up as his older brother. As Peter says to him at one point, "you need to be against something." Thomas shows himself to hold something of a victim mentality, as we see near the beginning, when he says of his wealthy father-in-law Kiil (Richard McMillan) that "he never believed me, along with everyone else." Cobden's awkwardness in the role offers a sharp, compelling contrast to Roberts' electric, broad-shouldered bravado; the way he uses his rail-thin body to reflect the character's inner states of turmoil, underlining Thomas' inherent sensitivity, his sense of powerlessness, and his intense conviction of beliefs (especially when delivering a rambling speech), is a powerful indicator that further underlines the work's underlying shades of gray. As publisher Aslaksen, Tom Barnett is deeply controlled, offering fascinating glimpses of a man who's well used to making compromises. Matthew Edison, as editor Hovstad, channels an angry "have-not" mentality masquerading as an altruistic social justice agenda that turns itself inside-out and becomes blatant self-protection. Richard McMillan's Kiil is, similar to Roberts, nothing of the cliched villain his sharp tan suit might imply, but a hardened businessman used to making difficult choices. By the play's closing, with Stockmann and his wife alone onstage, amidst roughly whitewashed chalkboard walls, there is a clear sense of this being a disordered, diseased universe; the looks Cobden and Podemski exchange clearly conveyed a weary knowingness combined with a deep fear, that goes well beyond words and straight to the heart of Ibsen's work.

An Enemy of the People is perhaps the ultimate Rorscach test for companies and directors, in that it allows for the examination of social justice issues against political interests, and of human values versus economic implications; interestingly, in the "forum" section of the Enemy performance I attended, one audience member described this tension as "a false dichotomy," a fascinating takeaway given the production's blatant allusions to the Walkerton water scandal and the Alberta tar sands. While Enemy does challenge its audience in its beliefs around the relationships between business, politics, ambition, and at its root, humanity, the Tarragon's current production leaves one feeling frustrated these issue weren't given the kind of care and attention they so richly deserve.

Photo credits: Top, Joe Cobden as Thomas Stockmann; Middle, Joe Cobden as Thomas Stockmann and Richard McMillan as Kiil; Bottom, Joe Coben as Thomas Stockmann and Rick Roberts as Peter Stockmann. All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.


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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)