REVIEW: An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen at Chichester Festival Theatre

Alfie Scott, Hugh Bonneville and Jack Taylor in Chichester Festival Theatre's An Enemy of the People. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Alfie Scott, Hugh Bonneville and Jack Taylor in Chichester Festival Theatre's An Enemy of the People. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Hugh Bonneville has soared to popular acclaim in Downton Abbey and Paddington as a man of stiff upper lip but heart of gold.

At first glance, the role of Dr Tomas Stockmann should offer similar shades of warm righteousness.

For Stockmann is the public health officer at a small-town’s spa Baths who identifies a major pollution threat and is determined not to let the establishment commit one almighty cover-up.

But Ibsen rarely deals in the black and white, the good and the bad, in a straightforward way.

This dynamic version by Christopher Hampton brutally reveals the complexity of human ambition and motivation.

For Stockmann not merely wishes to do the right thing in protecting the health of all users of the Baths. He expects to be lauded for bold intervention.

That the establishment is largely represented by his brother the Mayor suggests other influences are at work too - a sibling rivalry that has never been resolved.

Ibsen is not the easiest of writers to interpret on stage. Like Bernard Shaw - who was a huge admirer of his - Ibsen is too willing to allow his characters to be mere mouthpieces for detailed debate.

This can lead to the accusation, that real people wouldn’t speak like this. It risks the characters becoming overshadowed and overwhelmed by the message.

For audiences, this would be an easier piece of theatre if Ibsen had indeed allowed Stockmann to be a pure hero - rather than someone who insulted the silent majority of his community instead of gently encouraging them.

But Bonneville and the cast extract every ounce of emotion; transforming a century-old debate into something vibrant and utterly relevant today.

The scene in a public meeting is brought dimensionally alive by mingling the residents among the audience, bridging the gap between cast and observer.

Ibsen is likely to enjoy more critical than public acclaim but full credit to Chichester for never treading the easy path; and to Bonneville for demonstrating the sheer depth and range of his theatrical talent.