Melbourne Festival Diary #8
I woke the morning after seeing the Schaubühne Berlin's production of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People seething with a burning, undirected anger. I don't know what I had been dreaming: but I think this play named something accurately enough to blow those embers - of disillusion, impotence, political alienation, whatever - into a white heat. Some flame in me leapt up: yes, I thought, that's how it is. It's just like that.
|Stefan Stern as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, Schaubühne Berlin|
Is An Enemy of the People a revolutionary production? No: but it's about a certain kind of revolution that has always emerged from the intellectual bourgeoisie. Does it draw any conclusions, offer any program for the redress of the ills that the play analyses? No. Will it make its audiences rush to the barricades? I doubt it: it's only a play, after all, not a manifesto. But it is political in a very interesting way that profoundly implicates and exhilarates its audience. If political theatre is, as Brecht believed, about illuminating a situation so that it is possible to reflect fruitfully upon our place in it, then this is certainly political theatre.
The only Thomas Ostermeier production I've seen is his 2005 version of Hedda Gabler, which was performed at last year's Melbourne Festival. I found it disappointing, for several reasons: perhaps the major disappointment was its deliberate affectlessness, which amounted almost to cynicism. As I said at the time, "Ibsen's play becomes a scathing miniature, a portrait of an emotionally numbed, intellectually trivial bourgeoisie... Hedda and the gang are symbols merely, flattened-out representations of the conscious heartlessness of the middle classes, absorbed in their trivial pursuits as they turn their faces from the blood on the walls." What bothered me was that there was nothing at stake.
Here again Ostermeier is concerned with the middle classes - as Jana Perkovic observes, in her must-read response to the Berlin production, he is quintessentially a director of and for the middle classes. But this production cuts much deeper than easy caricacture. It revitalises naturalism, pulling on its original power to implicate its audience in self-recognition. In Hedda Gabler, this for me came close to avant garde David Williamson: in An Enemy of the People, the implication of the audience in the reality on stage was a whole lot more complex and direct. Ostermeier has a cast of exceptional actors, whose detailed performances generate a complex texture of argument: no character, not even the smooth, swift-talking politician, is simply reducible to symbolic moral significance. There is much to say about the production, which is beautifully realised in many ways: but here I want to concentrate on the ideas that animate it.
An Enemy of the People is Ibsen at his most acute, in his observations of social relations in the Norwegian middle classes and the self-interested machinations of capital. Written in 1882, it prefigures the two major revolutionary strands of the 20th century: the mass revolutions of China and Russia, and the Fascist revolution of Germany. Discomfortingly, it highlights the common genes that led both to Communism and National Socialism: Ibsen's hero, Doctor Thomas Stockmann, espouses beliefs that sound perilously close to eugenics, while at the same time railing against the petty blindness and destructiveness of bourgeois capitalism.
At first Florian Borchmeyer's adaptation, which updates it to the present time, sticks closely to the original play, although it dispenses with a few characters. Ibsen uses the net of relationships in a small provincial town to expose how the machinations of short-sighted self-interest militate against the common good (this is the germ of the idea that inspired Spielberg to make Jaws). Thomas Stockmann (Stefan Stern) is the doctor employed at the local spa. In this adaptation he is younger, married to Katherine (Eva Meckbach), with whom he has a new baby. They play in a band with Hovstad (Christoph Gawenda), editor of the local paper, and self-styled revolutionary reporter Billing (Moritz Gottwald): in short, as we first glimpse them, rehearsing their indie folk version of Bowie's Changes, they are the ideal boho professionals.
The spa, a recent innovation, is the source of the town's and Stockmann's recent prosperity, and is in fact originally Stockmann's idea. But he has discovered that effluent from a factory is poisoning the water, sickening the people who come to visit. When Stockmann attempts to publicise this fact, he hits petty local self-interest: his brother Peter (Ingo Hulsmann), the mayor of the town, points out that the cost of addressing the contamination is ruinous. The initial enthusiasm of Hovstad, Billing and the newspaper's publisher Aslaksen (David Ruland) evaporates rapidly when it becomes clear that addressing the problem will compromise the prosperity of the community. The situation is complicated by Katherine's father, the sinister Morten Kiil (Thomas Bading), who is the owner of the factory that is poisoning the groundwater. No one, in this complex web of interdependent relationships, is innocent or free of compromise.
The adaptation begins to depart from Ibsen most radically in the public meeting in Act 4, when Borchmeyer jams long excerpts from a 2007 French anarchist manifesto by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, into Thomas's speech. The Coming Insurrection, a contemporary derivation of the mid-20th century movement the Situationist International, became notorious when it was cited in scare quotes by FOX News pundit Glenn Beck as the ur-text of the Occupy movement, and picked up by Occupy itself as a rallying cry. A long quote, a powerful description of contemporary western self-alienation, is in fact projected onto a scrim front-stage as we walk into the theatre. It's worth stepping aside a little to examine what this text is actually doing there.
Jana Perkovic dismisses its presence as an illogical and superficial gesture (as does Chris Boyd in the Australian), which simply draws on trendy notions of revolution without attending to their meaning. Pointing out that Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is, above all, a play that defends the individual self against the masses, she says that The Coming Insurrection is a scathing critique of the misleading vacuity of that very individual. By putting the speech into Thomas's mouth, this production promotes "two opposing notions of the 'individual' and the 'community' at the same time, by the same person". I'm not so sure that this is an oversight: it seems to me that rather, Ostermeier is using Ibsen's play as a way to critique this iconic text (and vice versa).
The public meeting is also the point where the production opens out into something like audience participation: we became the public. The night I went, this became a thrilling experience of the power and ambiguity of theatre. The excerpt of The Coming Insurrection chosen for the play is the part that deals with the commodified individual:
“I AM WHAT I AM,” then, is not simply a lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry directed against everything that exists between beings, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation, against everything that makes us, and ensures that the whole world doesn’t everywhere have the look and feel of a highway, an amusement park or a new town: pure boredom, passionless but well-ordered, empty, frozen space, where nothing moves apart from registered bodies, molecular automobiles, and ideal commodities.
The sense of recognition in the audience was palpable: when the actors, now scattered through the auditorium, asked who agreed with Thomas, almost everyone put up their hand. A common sympathy with a person attempting to communicate an important truth in the face of vested interests (which was the drama we had been, up to now, witnessing) suddenly united with the real sense of contemporary crisis. Ibsen's "poisoned ground" became the crisis of the individual that middle classes everywhere in the western world are presently experiencing. "Everywhere," says Thomas, quoting The Invisible Committee, "the hypothesis of the self is beginning to crack". The sense that everything of human value is being sold, and of the impotence of the individual to combat the massive destruction we witness, was suddenly articulate.
I think this accounted for the peculiar passion of those who spoke in this weird QandA: the membrane between fiction and reality became outrageously permeable. It was never quite clear if people were speaking of the play or of their own situations and beliefs: someone linked the factory of the play with the desalination plant; someone else, pointing at the actors, complained about how much the media control and frame debate, making genuine discussion of issues all but impossible. This strange suspension of realities became stranger when another audience member asked if Thomas knew about his wife's flirtation with Hovstad, which we had just witnessed; a moment that clearly disconcerted the actors. Some gloriously liberating instability suddenly occurred in that theatre, which revealed a complexity of emotional and intellectual engagement that this fiction had released into the real.
But this was always going to be ambiguous: Thomas is no simple hero, not in Ibsen, and not in Ostermeier's interpretation. And rather than being contradictory, placing the anarchist manifesto in dialogue with Ibsen's play opens up all sorts of uncomfortable echoes. Just as Ibsen's Thomas heroicises the dissident individual holding fast to his truth, so too does The Coming Insurrection: "An isolated being who holds fast to a truth will inevitably meet others like her. In fact, every insurrectional process starts from a truth that we refuse to give up." The Coming Insurrection is in fact full of nostalgia for an authentic self, defined primarily by holding fast to an individual sense of truth. It warns against the inevitable corruption of the organisation, and even against most recognisable forms of collectivity, claiming "There will be no social solution to the present situation". It attacks the traditional organisational Left as inevitably compromised and corrupt, just as Ibsen's Thomas attacks "the damned solid liberal majority".
Perhaps most revealing is the statement that "To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition..." Not to those who have the luxury of choosing to be "socially nothing", perhaps. It is very much a text of middle class revolt, in which the idea of working class revolution has been all but abandoned or, more accurately, rendered invisible. As one commentator notes, The Coming Insurrection, with all its utopian contradictions, is as much as anything a product of the failures of the Left to provide any answers to contemporary crisis. An Enemy of the People is, at its most potent, an enactment of these failures. It represents an impossible situation, without the consolation of a solution.
In the final act, we watch the inevitable ostracisation of the whistle blower, the impugning of his motives, the removal of his social privileges, his casting out of society: a mechanism familiar to anyone who follows the news, from the continuing narrative of Julian Assange to the cyclists who attempted to expose Lance Armstrong. The production finishes with a much more ambivalent moment than in Ibsen's original, where Thomas decides for radicalism, saying triumphantly: "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone". Ibsen has Thomas surrounded by his family, his wife doubtful but supportive, his daughter grasping his hand in solidarity and recognition, his vocation finally illuminated by his adversity.
Here, in contrast, Thomas is squirming on the knife of doubt: the removal of his sense of community has not made him stronger, but disastrously weaker. Our last glimpse of him is as he sits with Katherine, jobless and homeless, his whole world fallen about his ears. Even his self-belief has been broken when, in frustration, he resorts to violence against Aslaksen. Aslaksen looks at him in contempt, saying "Yes, that is what you are": and in that moment, Thomas realises he has been reduced to the pettiness of his peers. His and Katherine's one remaining wealth is the shares in the spa that their father in law has secretly bought for them, a wealth that compromises everything that Thomas has fought for. He brings out a lighter, as if he is planning to burn the shares: he looks at his wife. We don't know what he decides.
An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, adaptation and dramaturgy by Florian Borchmeyer. Schaubühne Berlin, Melbourne Festival, until October 27.