Belvoir updates Ibsen to highlight vital issues for our society

A performance of Melissa Reeves' adaption of 'An Enemy of the People'.

An Enemy of the People
By Melissa Reeves, adapted from original by Henrik Ibsen
Starring Kate Mulvany, Steve Le Marquand, Peter Carroll, Leon Ford & Catherine Davies
Belvoir Theatre, until November 4
Tickets: Belvoir.com.au

A brand new Belvoir production of An Enemy of the People reunites the team behind critically-acclaimed hits Medea and Jasper Jones, director Anne-Louise Sarks and the superb Kate Mulvany, in a timely new version of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s prophetic masterpiece from the late 19th century.

Katherine Stockman (Mulvany) lives in a tight-knit community and makes a disturbing discovery: the town’s famed spa water is toxic. Rather than believe her, however, people seek to silence her.

With the play raising issues relevant to a world of “alternative facts”, and covering such issues as the treatment of whistleblowers, corporate greed and ecological issues, no wonder Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack said of it: “This is the drama of our times.”

Jepke Goudsmit, co-director of Kinetic Energy Theatre Company, offers her thoughts on the production after speaking with the play’s writer Melissa Reeves and Saha Jones, who saw the play with her.

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The Belvoir Theatre production of An Enemy of the People, re-imagines Ibsen’s classical play and plants it firmly in 2018 Australia.

Dr Katherine Stockman finds out that the water in her spa-resort home town has been contaminated by heavy metals from a sawmill during a recent flood. She plans to warn against serious health hazards and wants to call for the baths to be closed.

She assumes the town’s notables will be on her side, but finds herself cornered by their self-serving obstructions. Her professional knowledge is questioned, her motives twisted, and she ends up marked as a “fucking mad bitch” — an enemy of the people.

Her daughter and cleaner stand by her, facing ridicule and abuse in turn. But the women do not give up, having nothing left to lose.

The creative team have done an excellent job. Staying close to the original play’s themes (truth-telling, moral responsibility, the expediency of self-interest, the seduction and corruption of power, the deadly business of rivalry), they have transposed this 1882 drama to our contemporary shores. They have produced a lively, well-crafted new play, brimming with relevance for today. 

The actors walk an admirable balance between drama and comedy, never falling into the traps of cheap farce. The characters have depth and nuance, be it in their flaws or virtues. The whole team is highly commended for their show-with-bite.

The master-stroke is the changing of the lens through which the story is told. HIS story has become HER story. Ibsen’s original central character, Doctor Stockmann, was male, and the few female characters subordinate. In the Belvoir play, the doctor is a woman, and more than supported by two other women — her daughter Petra (a teacher’s aid), and the cleaner Randine.

The writer of the contemporary version, Melissa Reeves, told Green Left Weekly that Randine was an unseen character in Ibsen’s play. She was “the maid, who Dr Stockmann would refer to, always forgetting her name — a lovely irony. I wanted to have a voice in the play that represents people who the present system is not helping, in fact, is punishing: people on low-paid jobs, the unemployed. I wanted to point to the massive inequality that has been the result of neoliberalism.

“As someone whose interests are recognised by no one, Randine exhibits social disinterest (‘I don’t vote’). But by the end, she is able to clearly articulate her position, and shift the perspective of Dr Stockmann.”

The three women drive the unfolding of the drama and highlight the core of the issues at hand: the need to stand up for the environment, for equality, for community, for action in the face of climate change and against the numerous injustices perpetrated by that outmoded class system and patriarchal capitalism.

The play never preaches this blatantly, but bursts with suggestion. It prods the watcher continually by referencing current events in a style that is never too laboured nor too light.

The four male characters represent the notables and aspiring forces in town: Stockman’s brother (the mayor), Stockman’s father-in-law (the sawmill owner), the president of the town’s small business association, the editor of the local rag and a young journalist. They are unmasked as opportunistic bully boys, all succumbing to a hardness of heart, self-interest and inability to change.

Saha Jones notes: “The teacher’s aid, the cleaner and the doctor: their relationships expose the conflicts of class, gender, status and the accompanying anxieties that block the process of emancipation. Through this trio of very different women, the need for solutions-based thinking is made explicit.

“Their work as carers and educators is unacknowledged, yet the thing most needed now: We need to clean up, get our house in order, redistribute the inequities of wealth, heal our wounds and disorders, and educate ourselves and each other.”

When Stockman, about two thirds through the play, yells out “LET ME SPEAK!” to the men who have been interrupting her and jeopardising the public meeting she called, her words roar like a raw primal scream. It not only wells from her own despair and anger, but reverberates with the pain of the oppressed, the environment and all those whose voice has no agency.

Jones comments: “The play was hot, stirring, unsettling. I found myself unexpectedly crying, when the climax of abuse, directed at the female characters, set off a rush of grief that welled up from the library of my soul.

“Triggered were a series of flashbacks from the countless examples of violence, in their most insidious and discrete forms, that I have witnessed and experienced in my own life.”

The three women go through a process of growing, gaining strength and insight from each other every time they assess the situation together. They are not against the men, but against the system.

The men, on the other hand, gang up against the women, and fall back into old patterns of intimidation, be they political, sexist, or racist. The battle of the sexes is on, and the battle of the classes in a time of corporate greed and workers’ insecurity, and the battle to save the environment, the planet.

For in our age, truth-telling is whistleblowing. And enough is enough. The play carries these notions elegantly, without shying away from strong language. It calls a spade a spade with wit and dignity. It is in resonance with the reinvigoration of feminism that is happening on a global scale.

It asks: surely, in the face of our giant contemporary equaliser, climate change, we need solidarity, true equality and ecological common sense to expose hypocrisy and collective action. Indeed, the audience is asked this directly, at that same town meeting: What prevents you from taking action?

Jones says: “It reminded me of the power of voice, and my own proximity to privilege that I have so arbitrarily been afforded. Or has it? Justice, rights, freedoms are not a given, they have to be fought for, practiced, enacted and enshrined.”

Ibsen stirred his audiences and challenged the status quo by attacking entrenched beliefs and assumptions. He was a realist and acutely critical of the social imbalances and mores of his time. Doing away with the flowery style of Victorian drama, he exposed whatever was swept under middle-class carpets, and shone his stark light into the cesspools of hypocrisy of the middle and ruling class.

He often zoomed in on the suffocation and oppression of women, who were condemned to be either “their husband’s wife or their father’s daughter”, never allowed to be themselves and fulfill their potential.

Reeves points out: “Ibsen was audacious and confronting, and I wanted to find that audaciousness in a contemporary setting. I love theatre that takes hold of ideas and isn’t afraid to interrogate them.

“It’s a complex relationship — performance to audience, and it can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to one thing, like getting a message across.

“Petra, in Ibsen’s play, is the hope in the piece, a young woman with new fresh ideas. This really resonated for us, and we looked to young online activists, and some of the recent energetic radical campaigns run by young people for inspiration.”

Will this be a controversial show? It certainly bites — especially the arses of the middle class who sit on their privilege and need to be mobilised.

My one criticism of the play is sadly ironic: while the action is set in an Aussie country town, the cast is multicultural, and reference is made to the town’s history, not once is there mention of Indigenous presence or dispossession. At the start of the public meeting, Petra could at least make some reference, however tokenistic.

On this, Reeves responds: “We talked about the pros and cons of this. We should talk again. It’s a really good point.”

The play runs until November 4, with a free show for the unwaged on November 2. I highly recommend it.