“An Enemy of the People” at Duke of York’s Theatre

Neil Dowden in the West End
23 February 2024

In its satire of political corruption and media bias, Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People still resonates in today’s post-truth, environmentally fragile world. Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer’s bold reimagining was first produced by Berlin’s Schaubühne Theatre in 2012 and has been staged all over the world (including a short run at the Barbican in 2014). This new English-language version by Duncan Macmillan with some contemporary updates – including references to Covid and Post Office software – continues to engage audiences in a lively debate about ethical and social values corroded by money and power.


Matt Smith and Nigel Lindsay.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Dr Thomas Stockmann, medical officer of a small town’s celebrated spa, discovers that the water – its “life blood” – is contaminated and is a serious threat to public health. But when he tries to make this widely known he is suppressed by his older brother Peter, the mayor, as well as by the campaigning newspaper that initially supports him, while his father-in-law Morton Kiil whose factory is responsible for the pollution warns him off.

Stockmann attempts to get his message across at a town-hall meeting attended by local people, but it is stage-managed by the authorities, and his frustration boils over into an out-of-control rant against all and sundry that alienates the townspeople and leads to reprisals against his family.

Although there are some minor changes – for example, it is Stockmann’s wife Katharina who is a teacher rather than his daughter (a baby here), while there is a twist right at the end – this adaptation sticks fairly closely to the original story but presents it within a modern setting. Stockmann, his wife, and friends are first portrayed as cool, leftie bohemians who are in total harmony when as a band they perform songs such as David Bowie’s “Changes” (indicating their reforming zeal) – but divisions soon appear as Stockmann’s solo crusade takes over.

Newspaper editor Hovstad and publisher Aslaksen turn against him after becoming concerned about the economic cost to the town with the loss of tourism if the baths close and consequent devaluation of property prices. In the town hall, Peter intervenes to put his spin on the scandal, saying that the baths are not as dangerous as Thomas claims and that it’s unnecessary to replace the water system which would cost over a hundred million leading to a huge rise in taxes.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


Faced with this combined opposition, Thomas’s original plan to just tell the truth about the infected water spills over into an extended, scattergun attack on the toxicity of modern life, in particular the inequities of the capitalist system, including lying leaders, corporate greed, consumer materialism, social media, and so on. However, his call that the “liberal majority be exterminated” shows a disillusioned idealist who seems to have lost his faith in democracy. This verbal diarrhoea perhaps makes him more enema than enemy of the people – but a lot of what he says will provoke a strong reaction one way or the other.

The public meeting is brilliantly staged. With the house lights switched on, and some of the cast in the aisles, the audience become the citizens who are passed a microphone to give their opinion or pose questions to the participants on stage, in a Question Time-style format. The audience participation brings an unpredictable element to Ibsen’s typically wordy play, while the scene ends in paintballing chaos.

The approach is slightly reminiscent of Richard Jones’s 2013 production at the Young Vic in David Harrower’s version of the play called Public Enemy which also involved the audience, but Ostermeier takes it much further. The show may not be as edgy as it once was, but it still makes a strong impact as a piece of polemical theatre, while also highlighting more than usual the humour in the play. The self-professed Marxist Ostermeier – who has taken on the mantle from Peter Stein as Germany’s most important radical theatre director – has led the Schaubühne to international success since 2009, but this is his first show in the West End.

His long-term collaborator Jan Pappelbaum’s design features walls scrawled with political slogans and enigmatic messages (such as “If you happen to run into the Buddha on the street kill him”) that are later whitewashed over just as the authorities censor the laboratory medical report.

Matt Smith returns to the theatre to give a charismatic performance as the ambivalent hero/anti-hero Thomas Stockmann. (His last outing was, by stark contrast, in a physically distanced performance with fellow Netflix The Crown star Claire Foy of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs on the Old Vic stage, which was played to audiences online rather than confronting them in the flesh.) Smith conveys a driving ego behind the whistle-blowing truth-teller who later lapses into a messiah complex, while also suggesting sibling rivalry may play a part as he physically wrestles with his brother.

Paul Hilton (who only recently finished playing the sanctimonious Father Manders in Ibsen’s Ghosts at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) is superb as the authoritarian, besuited Peter Stockmann, issuing veiled threats with bureaucratic officiousness. Priyanga Burford also impresses as Aslaksen, who quickly forsakes editorial non-interference for the interests of the property owners she represents, especially in her quick-witted handling (as MC) of audience contributions. The impartiality of Shubham Saraf’s Hovstad is already compromised by his love for Jessica Brown Findlay’s long-suffering Katharina, while Zachary Hart’s subeditor Billing curries favour with the mayor to get a job at the town hall. And Nigel Lindsay’s quietly menacing Kiil is usually seen accompanied by an Alsatian – who although adding muscle is impeccably behaved on stage.