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Theatre Review: Matt Smith is electrifying in an Ibsen classic with a very modern message

The former Doctor Who’s second-act speech in An Enemy of the People is a tour de force

Matt Smith (Dr Stockmann) and Nigel Lindsay (Morten Kiil). Photo: Manuel Harlan

An Enemy of the People
Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until April 6

With its message about the way politicians and the media can manipulate democracy, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People has never lost its relevance. It was always grimly ironic the title should have inspired the Daily Mail‘s infamous attack on the judiciary – the rag was literally trolling the late Norwegian playwright with its notorious Enemies of the People headline. But Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer’s new adaptation of the play mainlines into something even deeper in the contemporary human psyche.

The production, directed by Ostermeier, is something of a slow burn. The first act is a conscientious enough rendering of the basic story of a young idealist (Matt Smith) who discovers that the waters of a spa town are poisoned and dangerous. Paul Hilton – a bit like the mayor in Jaws – communicates very well the politician’s response which is to hush it all up rather than endanger the town’s sole source of income. Along the way, there are voguish references to “draining the swamp” and even fixing the computers at the local Post Office.

With its distracting bursts of pop music and a strange minimalist set consisting of graffiti-strewn walls, I was thinking, even though Hilton and Smith’s acting is of the highest order, three stars tops for this show. It also occurred to me it was starting to feel a bit passé to see a former Doctor Who star striving for relevance on a West End stage after David Tennant’s Macbeth just before Christmas that emphasised very much that play’s message of “blood will have blood.”

It turns out, however, that Ostermeier was just softening us all up for the second act and it’s a five-star blow to solar plexus. Denied space in the local newspaper to warn the townspeople of the danger to their water, Smith stands up and addresses them at a hurriedly convened meeting. Hilton’s slimy politician has gone on just before to assure the townspeople they have nothing at all to worry about in terms of the water, but the idealist wrong-foots him.

He chooses not to talk about the water, but, in what I would say is the best-delivered piece of prose I’ve heard from an actor in decades, he attacks head-on the failings of democracy and individuals enriching themselves at the expense of the majority. He is predictably heckled for trying to thwart the will of the people, and he asks, in response, if even the biggest majorities can necessarily know that is right, not least because they may not be as informed as they think they are.

Maybe it’s the political mess in this country and across the Atlantic, a sense of powerlessness about the ongoing bloodbath in Palestine, a shared sense of unease about the future, but the effect of these words on the first-night audience was devastating. When Smith finished speaking, there was something I have seldom experienced in the theatre: numbed silence.

Questions are invited from the audience – an intriguing first-night mix that included everyone from the former chancellor George Osborne to Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville – and for a while no one could think of anything to ask as Smith’s character had said all there is to be said about our sorry world. Eventually, a question came about whether there should be a public inquiry into the quality of the town’s water, but the fact it came from the actor Roger Allam made me think it was almost certainly planted.

Others brought up issues like the partying in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street during the lockdown and – in what was definitely not a planted question – the extortionate cost of theatre tickets. A punter then eloquently made the point that it is up to all of us to be as informed as we possibly can be before we cast our votes, and that’s a responsibility too often shirked in democracies.

What the questions demonstrated was that no one could take issue with the fundamental point Smith’s character had been making: that no one is ultimately happy with the kind of world we are currently living in and that our political leaders are, for the most part, representing us not at our very best but our very worst.

Smith should get every best actor award going for his performance and Hilton, as his adversary, is a revelation, communicating so many little things I’ve seen in politicians doing in real life – vainly reaching for his comb when his hair gets out of place – and most strikingly of all the shark-like deadness in his eyes as he sets out to deceive.

The other actors aren’t quite in the same league, but it doesn’t matter as the writers have distilled Ibsen’s work down to an epic battle between Smith and Hilton in the principal roles, the struggle between truth and mendacity, idealism and cynicism.

At its very best, in terms of unspoken thoughts and fears, theatre should make us feel we are not alone and this production succeeds admirably in this respect. Regular readers will know that I despair sometimes of the West End but this is a show that lives up to Laurence Olivier’s vision of theatre being a place that should “glamorise intellect.”

I have no hesitation in recommending An Enemy of the People not merely as great thought-provoking drama but also – and we need this now more than ever – great therapy.

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