Tuesday 17 October 2017

a magnificent, furious enemy

Emer O'Kelly

HENRIK Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882. It was a reaction to the fierce attacks which had been made on him for Ghosts the play which pilloried the hypocrisy of respectable life. Arthur Miller wrote his version of An Enemy in 1950, and it became one of the great plays of 20th- Century America ... and contributed to Miller being attacked as "un-American" by the McCarthy witch-hunt of liberals. He even had his passport withdrawn.

Applicable and resonant then, in two time frames. And as Wayne Jordan's new production of the Miller version for the Gate in Dublin proves, still applicable and resonant. Peter Stockmann, the wily Mayor, takes credit for the new prosperity of his town due to the opening of springwater baths with reputed medicinal powers.

His brother Tom, the awkward, cussed, local doctor, runs the spring. Uneasy at what he sees there, Dr Stockmann investigates the waters, only to find them badly polluted. Expecting to be lauded for avoiding a possible human disaster he tries to publish his findings in the local liberal, anti-government newspaper.

But seeing the town's newly found prosperity about to drain away, with the added burden of new taxes required to build purifying works to prevent further pollution, his neighbours and friends turn on him, proclaiming him "an enemy of the people".

Faced with the cost of integrity and probity, the public flesh is always weak, Miller tells us, and a solitary voice cannot prevail.

As Mrs Stockmann asks her husband "Without power, what good is the truth?" his reply (when he tries to address a public meeting) is that "the majority is never right until it does right," a dictum straight from Plato's Republic and the doubts that document casts on the value of democracy as giving power to venal demagogues rather than to the individual voice of the intellectual.

The irony of Ibsen's (and Miller's ) social realism is that their plays are usually staged for the fashionable elite, seldom for the intellectual elite (which in any case, as per Plato, is usually bereft of power). The audience nods in self-congratulation at recognising the importance of uncomfortable truth, then goes home and buries it under the layers of near-corrupt business practices, and the daily cynicism of self-serving political cunning. It sees a portrait, not a mirror.

And depressing though that may be, the irony does not change the fact that Jordan has staged a thundering, magnificent piece of drama, full of impassioned fury and dark comedy. The cast is led by faultlessly magnificent performances from Declan Conlon as Dr Stockmann and Denis Conway as the conniving Peter Stockmann.

They are joined by Fiona Bell as Mrs Stockmann, Bosco Hogan as her wily father, Ronan Leahy and Mark Huberman as the faint-hearted journalists, Barry McGovern as the publisher Aslaksen, Jill Harding as Stockmann's daughter, and Liam Carney as Captain Horster, the "outsider" figure who serves as a Greek chorus to the unfolding horror.

Joan O'Clery's costumes and Paul O'Mahony's set both suggest the early 1960s, authentically reminiscent of Miller's angry hey-day; and lighting and sound are by Davy Cunningham and Philip Stewart.

There are many, many reasons to see An Enemy of the People. One of them is, maybe, for us to learn a lesson at last. That's unlikely. The other reason is Declan Conlon's central performance.

***

RACHEL Fehily, the author of Under Pressure is a lawyer. So I expected her play, set in a conference room at the Four Courts, to have an authentic ring. Unfortunately. the depiction of an eminent Senior Counsel (presented as the leading criminal defence counsel in the country) interviewing her client, an ear, nose, and throat specialist about to go on trial for the killing of his wife comes over as manufactured and phoney.

There is no plot: the play consists of the meeting between the two, with extraneous and pretty pointless interjections from the wife, who died from asphyxia while the two were indulging in some bondage sex with one of the husband's ties. Was it an accident? Did she instigate the sex play? Did he? The problem is that one couldn't care less, probably because these are cardboard cut-out characters.

The play seems to want to probe the subtleties of how defence and prosecution counsel set out to influence a jury, but it never takes off, and remains a static, boring hour, despite direction from the accomplished Gina Moxley.

Geoff Minogue plays the husband, Deborah Pearce the ghostly wife and Ceire O'Donoghue the Counsel. It's at Bewley's lunchtime Theatre in Grafton Street, Dublin.

Irish Independent

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