Henrik Ibsen wrote to the publisher of his 1882 play ‘An Enemy of the People’ that ‘I am still uncertain whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama’. The play’s balance between comic elements and serious themes has posed a perpetual challenge for directors in the 140 years since it was written. But co-directors Eliana Kwok and Valerina Tjandra’s recent production of Ibsen’s individualist outcry has come down decidedly on the side of comedy.
The comic choices are clear from the outset when Mrs Stockmann arrives to provide the characters with three oversized bottles of spirits, which they then pour generous glasses from. The bottles remained on stage and continued to be drunk from for the entirety of the production. This is followed by the ingenious decision to have both Dr Stockmann and his brother, the mayor, use a large presentation stand to reveal their ideas by dramatically flipping the paper. The culmination of this technique, perhaps, is the scene when Dr Stockmann walks in on the Mayor, Hovstad and Alaksen plotting. This provokes the Mayor to then scurry repeatedly round the floor of the room, making desperate attempts to seize a glass of spirits.
All this was very funny and only enhanced by the acting performance given. While there were no standout performances, the supporting characters of Hovstad, Billing and Alaksen delivered their lines with enough melodramatic energy to have the audience chuckling constantly. The pompous formal costumes added to the atmosphere of exaggerated silliness which carried us through a rolling first half. As long as it wasn’t taken too seriously, it was a lot of fun to watch.
However, this strategy began to run out of steam after the interval. It’s at this point in the play, when Dr Stockmann stands before a town meeting, that Ibsen tries to pull his philosophical punches, and the jubilant chaos of the first half had meant it now became very difficult to take anyone seriously. The lines of the various supporting characters were often confused, and the acting felt forced, as if these comic actors suddenly felt out of their element in more serious tones. Even Dr Stockmann’s performance, of central importance to the message of the play, was mumbled and uneven at times. Combine this with an unnecessary interactive voting gimmick where no one, least of all the actors, seemed to know what the plan was, and you had a town meeting where it was hard to tell which farces were deliberate and which were unintentional.
The ending of the play (famously inconclusive) attempted for a more serious tone, and to some extent achieved it. The ruined set, scattered with dropped household items and scraps of recent Cherwell editions which took the place of Dr Stockmann’s papers, provided a somewhat moving background to the emotional segments. In which, a stifled Dr Stockmann tries to assure his family of his affection by kissing the plastic doll which functioned as a newborn son, and asking for their support in return. But even this was broken up by elements of slapstick humour, like when Dr Stockmann chases Hovstad and Alaksen out of his house with his walking stick. After all of this chaos, the play’s final ending was abrupt and unexpected.
‘An Enemy of the People’ is a difficult play to produce. If even Ibsen was uncertain of what he wanted out of it, it’s no surprise that directors find it difficult to take a stance as well. Kwok and Tjandra’s comic angle was highly successful in a first half where the characters’ ridiculous personalities are hard not to make fun of. However, humour can only get you so far. This was by no means a masterpiece – but upon leaving the theatre, I could not deny that it had been a highly enjoyable watch.