Hiding in Plain Sight

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Christopher Hampton, directed by Howard Davies, with Hugh Bonneville, Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester, Tuesday, 4th May, 7pm.

Ibsen manages the extraordinary trick of hiding his art in plain sight. His plays are, superficially at least, about finance and politics, families and love affairs, but these subjects are dressed up, decorated, presented to us on a plate, as paradoxically simple stories, put together in an entertainment, in a play, as art.

Writing it down like that seems to make the point obvious, a truism. Of course his plays are art. They are performed in the biggest theatres by the most prominent actors. They must be important.

But the more you think about his plays, the trickier they become. It's not just that the art is there and not there, effortless and simple. It's the nagging feeling that there is more to these plays, that the smooth surface conceals something much darker and more disturbing.

If Ibsen uses art, theatre to present politics, business, family life, love, then where is art in his art? What does he think of art, of artists, of his own art?

There are lots of hints in An Enemy of the People that the central role, Dr Stockman, is autobiographical: his money troubles, that he has lived away from his hometown for many years, not least his crusading bent, his passion and zeal all point to an avatar for the author. The overriding metaphor, that the town's water supply is contaminated, that the future is built on what amounts to a sewer, almost seems too pat, too obvious to be taken seriously.

This production, at the Chichester Festival Theatre, attractively staged, has in Hugh Bonneville's Dr Stockman, a very charming, authoritative, thoroughly decent man, struggling to do what he sees as the right thing.

I'm not sure, from the point of view of the play, this is the right thing.

It's very hard to have lived anywhere in the English speaking world with a television and been ignorant of Hugh Bonneville as the charming, authoritative and thoroughly decent head of the Downton Abbey household. He is very much the centre of that production, the warm sun around which all the other characters revolve.

He fills just such a role here, the focus of the production, the touchstone from which the other characters are identified or judged.

This approach mitigates against the way Ibsen constructs his drama. If Ibsen's plays are great for one reason, it is that every character is understood in relation to every other character. The relationships are built up, tiny detail by tiny detail, until we have a complex picture of a community.

But because Dr Stockman is played as decent, thoughtful and even-tempered, the other characters have to be, by necessity, overly energetic, sometimes illogical and combative which creates difficulties in their relationships with each other.

Aslaksen, a printer and representative of the small business community, is constantly, and comically, emphasising his restraint and reasonableness. Yet no-one is more restrained and reasonable than Bonneville's Dr Stockman.

A more marked difficulty arises with Dr Stockman's brother, the mayor of the town and the Doctor's nemesis. The more the mayor charges his brother with being difficult, that he has a restless, rebellious nature, that he is impulsive, the more William Gaminara has to dial up the Mayor's nastiness, to a point where he is in danger of becoming a type, a mouthpiece for the apparent corruption of the board of directors and the town which he represents.

In effect, Dr Stockman and those who are opposed to him, have switched character traits, which puts the emphasis onto the practical, the financial and political, aspects of the plot, and removes almost entirely the underlying impulse of the play, a ruthless and clear eyed examination, a laying bare of the artistic drive, the illogical, self-destructive need to say out loud things which people don't want to hear.

That Dr Stockman is so logical, so sensible, so reasonable and those opposed to him so self-serving, so mendacious, the play becomes little more than a polemic seemingly about honesty in public life when, in fact, Dr Stockman's irrationality, his pugnaciousness, his temper tantrums, his fantasies about being loved and honoured for his honesty, should encourage the audience to have sympathy for those, his brother, the editor of the newspaper, his father-in-law, who have to deal with him. They are the ones who are rational, unemotional, at ease with money and politics. Dr Stockman is out of his depth in their world.

Dr Stockman, as written, is crazy, driven, difficult to love, embarrassing to be around, a burden to his family, yet is honest, well-meaning, consumed with a need to say the unsayable. The challenge for an actor is to make such a person sympathetic to an audience. We should feel for those who love this man, who have to deal with him. His daughter, Petra, out of loyalty to her father, has to turn away suiters, his brother has no choice but to break with him, his wife is in despair, but we don't see this in their relationships with each other, all being subsumed beneath the reading of the Dr Stockman role.

While so much about this play is still relevant, especially in the age of Facebook and Twitter, what really makes this play live for today is the portrait of the artist, warts and all, a portrait which transcends money and politics to explore a deeper truth about human relationships, that the sacrifices, the difficulties, the sheer bloody-mindedness of being an enemy of the people, that is the true experience of art and artists.

Paul Corcoran