Last year the Young Vic produced a new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Carrie Cracknell. With its breakneck speed, aided quite a bit by the whirling set (Ian MacNeil) it managed to be both faithful to the original and utterly accessible to the 21st century viewer.
Now the Young Vic have done something similar with An Enemy of the People, which in its latest version by David Harrower has changed its name to Public Enemy and runs, again at speed, non-stop for 90 odd minutes without a break. The difference is that whereas A Doll’s House remained rooted in its original 1880s setting Public Enemy has been updated to what I took – bearing in mind the orange wallpaper and electric typewriter – to be the seventies.
The story of a doctor in a small Norwegian spa town who – curious to know why a handful of holidaymakers contracted diseases such as typhoid after taking the water decides to have it tested and discovers it is contaminated, even poisonous, due partly to a tannery owned by his father in law; only to find himself then ostracised and vilified by the entire town – should make good sense to modern perceptions. But the problem with this adaptation (as I saw it) is that it doesn’t really sit comfortably in its new period. Perhaps it’s the adaptation itself that’s too faithful to the original. There is a good deal of speechifying, and people behave to one another in an almost formal way that in no way reflects my memory of the seventies. The clothes are indeterminate, and there’s a moment when the Stockmans’ elder boy sits rapt for a rather long time listening to a family friend playing the harmonica (in the seventies??). There’s no sign of a radio or TV nor of the two boys demanding to plonk themselves in front of it. In fact there is very little direct reference to the seventies anywhere (other than the wallpaper and the electric typewriter), such as a burgeoning public awareness of the effect of man-made climate change.
That said the play zips along at a cracking pace and keeps a firm hold of our attention (or mine at any rate). It even implicates the audience at one point when Stockman, addressing us directly, challenges us to disagree with his premise that democracy doesn’t work because the majority of the people are stupid and incapable of making the ‘right’ decision, at which point we (I) realise he is actually bonkers. Whether or not this is faithful to the original – which I don’t have to hand – it’s a remarkable, and temporary, switch in the doctor’s character which rather distracts from and undermines the sympathy we’ve been led to feel towards him.
It’s still a cracking play though, with good performances all round, especially from Nick Fletcher as the doctor (Krogstad in Doll’s House) and Darrell D’Silva as his brother and enemy, the mayor. I just wondered if this adaptation might have worked better if, as with Doll’s House, it had kept to its original 1882 setting.