(photo credit: Arno Declair)
by Chad Dembski
Yesterday there was announced the largest water boil alert in Montreal history. It has effected almost every citizen in the entire city and paralyzed some businesses (cafés) and caused chaos around buying simple bottled water. It would almost seem too perfect for the FTA to open on May 22nd with a radical adaptation of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” that has at its core a dilemma around contaminated water in the local Baths from which most of the city gains its profit. The plot of the play seemed a surprise to many in the audience and helped instantly engage them in this highly visceral and participatory theatrical event.
Dr. Stockmann, who works for the city, discovers a contaminated water source
The piece begins gracefully with a lone man singing the Gnarles Barkley song “Crazy” to himself at a long table. Slowly lights come up to reveal a gorgeous, complex black chalkboard stage that is the home of the main protagonist Dr. Stockmann and his wife Katherine. They have two close friends, Aslasken and Billing who both help form a band the group of four have and also share political and social beliefs. An early scene ends with an energetic band rehearsal of David Bowie’s “Changes” that stays as a theme through the first half of the piece. The plot is simple: Dr. Stockmann, who works for the city, discovers a contaminated water source has been making tourists quite ill at the local Baths which have been recently constructed and seem to be the saviour to the financially struggling town. He is challenged by his brother Peter who is also the Mayor of the town and sees millions of dollars of local money having to go toward fixing the problem. Every other character must choose a side; slowly friends and comrades abandon Dr. Stockmann and his report on the water supply.
Naturalism is the chosen performance mode for this adaptation that has remained the most popular of work from Schaubühne, a Berlin-based company. This style works well for most of the piece but at 21/2 hours without an intermission some theatre goers may get tired of the long pauses and allowance for awkward interactions between characters. Often the respect for the original text is the only thing holding back this production which often feels like it wants to explode all over the stage and not be contained by a fourth wall (a downstage projection wall is used for the first half of the piece). This tension is explored well as the main character, Dr. Stockmann, finds himself all alone except for his wife and decides to hold a press conference. His speech to the audience, in which the house lights are brought up to include all of us, is inspiring, raw and contemporary. "I am what I am" (a tag line from a commercial) is what starts the speech that includes stirring pleas about isolation, corruption, using prescription drugs on children, the effect of computer and cell phone use on our interactions and much more. This leads into an all-out discussion with the audience that was both exhilarating and bizarre but nevertheless helped realize the ideals of the play in the here and now.
Ultimately it's an intriguing, contemporary adaption from one of the worlds most renowned companies which often takes on classic plays. I had seen two of their pieces before (Hamlet 2010, Fire in the Head 2001) and been impressed by the performances, detail in design and overall epic adaptations. Again with “An Enemy of the People” Schaubühne presents a great balance between the classical and the contemporary and helps remind us why these plays have stayed for over 125 years.