Saturday, 13 February 2010

An Enemy Of The People, Sheffield Crucible, 11 Feb 2010

Where theatre moves you.

Art should move you. Intimately. Violently. Sometimes, even, physically. Like in this case: theatre made me take a train to a city I didn't know to a theatre I had never been to. It's part of the fun. I treasure those journeys - sometimes lonely, hard, miserable journeys - I've made just to see a good piece of theatre. Or a particular actor. Those trips to Straford-upon-Avon because of the RSC. That very memorable journey to the unknown aka Stafford and its castle to see Joseph Millson's Hamlet. Oh yes now that you mention Hamlet... My visit to the newly rebuilt, born-again Sheffield Crucible (now under the guidance of AD Daniel Evans, wonderful actor and great speaker during the latest Royal Court anniversary celebrations) served a double purpose: I went to see Lucy Cohu in the role of Katrine - the wife of the lead Dr.Stockmann, played by Anthony Sher - because last year's Speaking in Tongues still burns in my memory as my favourite piece of theatre and Cohu was an essential factor in that, becoming part of the "Actors I would go anywhere to see perform" list that I have. On the other hand I wanted to familiarize myself with the city and with the theatre because since the annoucement of John Simm future involment taking on the role of Hamlet in a Crucible production next autumn I have been curious (and excited) about this building, this place and its dynamic - and because I suspect, come September, I'll be making a lot of trips to Sheffield, so I'd better start learning train timetables and streets layouts. Theatre moves me. Literally.

On the other hand I have come to the conclusion that Ibsen is an acquired taste, at least in my case. I had always been afraid to admit it but I found Ibsen's plays a bit... well, a bit boring, actually. Maybe it had to do with the fact that my final essays for drama classes at college had to be about Chekov, Beckett and Ibsen and after reading Ibsen's plays I found them completely unexciting compared to the other two authors. "Not for me" I decided. But then slowly, things started to change. Lucy Kirkwood's version of Hedda Gabler wasn't exactly a succees but it made re-examine my prejudices. And then came the rehearsed reading of Ghosts at the Old Vic with Lesley Sharp, Ian Glenn and Tom Brooke that was actually sublime by the end. And the Donmar's A Doll's House in an energetic version by Zinnie Harris and perfect performances from Chris Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens and Anton Lesser. Then Ghosts again at the Arcola with a magnificent Harry Lloyd. I started to think "Well maybe Ibsen is for me".

Maybe I should have started with An Enemy of the People. It tells a very political story about a man doing the right thing even if that costs him everything that is dear to him - I have a soft spot for those stories (specially in film, from Mr.Smith Goes To Washington to Good Night And Good Luck) and here Ibsen delivers a classic one. Dr. Stockmann (Anthony Sher) is a well-known and well-loved citizen of a small town in Norway. Together with his brother Peter, the Mayor of the town, he is helping develop the new baths of the village, expected to bring tourism and prosperity. But just as the dream of this wonderful enterprise seems close to coming true Dr.Stockmann discovers that the local tannery is contaminating the waters of the town and that the new baths could be very dangerous for the health of those using them. He expects that this discovery will have a great impact on the city - the bath will have to close and a long time will be needed until the waters are safe and healthy again. But much to his bafflemente the authorities (including and specially his brother) try to silence his discovery. What's more, the townspeople refuse to believe Stockmann and give up their dream of prosperity. They treat him like a lunatic who's lying to them, they start harassing him and his family, even his friends turn on him, until Stockmann denounces that the individual is wiser than the multitude and the strong man stands alone against a brainless community.

There are two important themes going on here: first, the individual against the masses. An Enemy of the People was written by Ibsen as a response of the general public's rejection of his previous play, the polemic Ghosts. As such it's a play with a very clear agenda. Amazingly enough this does not hurt the quality of the play, as it happens in many occasions when an author tackles a very particular political subject he feels passional about. An Enemy of the People is not preachy, it's fantastic theatre that makes you feel what Ibsen wanted you to: anger at the sense of injustice, and impotence. Here the good man, the hero, is treated by the people of his own town like a villain, like a theatre. At the same time Ibsen tells the story of the sacrifices Stockmann has to make to defend his beliefs. Not just to his status but the comfort of his family. Stories of martyrs, or those who refuse to be, in the name of what they believe to be the right, just choice have always fascinated me: theatre has seen many great version of this dilemma, from Life of Galileo to The Winslow Boy to Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour. It's easy to believe yourself uncompromising but what's the price you pay?

Great, engaging play, then. Christopher Hampton's version full of energy and a good deal of comedy. And the theatre? Well, to put it simply the Crucible is beautiful. Classy, easy to walk through, and the staff are helpful. I was hoping to buy a proper programme but they didn't have (I wondered, panicked, will they have them for Hamlet?). There was a delightful art exhibition with paintings and drawings by Anthony Sher, very enjoyable. And the stage? The stage was breathtaking. The seats on a semi-circle around it, every seat has amazing view. Designer Ben Stone made used of its possibilities with a simple, open and gorgeous set. Ibsen is usually all dark and confined spaces but this production let the play breathe and it was a clever move. It wasn't afraid of being epic (this play is epic, let's face it). This was a stage made for the epic and the intimate at the same time.

As for the performances, Daniel Evans has reunited a very solid cast - though I'll be straight here and admit I wasn't very impressed by Anthony Sher. This was the first time I ever saw him in theatre and I wasn't starstruck as I guessed I'd be, given his good reputation. He was good but at times a bit tiring, his acting too grand. It added a nice ambiguity to the character (if Stockmann believes himself to be so much bigger-than-life it's easy to imagine how he throws himself so happily at the possibility of being a moral hero, martyrdom and all) but in the end it made it harder to connect with Stockmann. Another kind of actor - perhaps more low-key - would have transformed this great production into something complately unforgettable. What was really unforgettable was Lucy Cohu's performance as Stockmann's wife - it was strange at first, after all those times I saw her in Speaking in Tongues - to see her embody another character. Cohu excells at being quietly powerful here, and she handles the complexity of Katrine (she knows she should fight for the good cause of her husband but at times her earthly desire for a comfortable life gets the better of her, but in the end she comes through) admirably. Against Sher's vitality she might seem subdued but there is a strength to her performance that makes the character completely believable. The rest of the cast - with John Shrapnel as Stockmann's brother - is very reliable if not actually brilliant, and under Daniel Evans' flawless direction they work together and mesh perfectly.

Theatre moves you, if it's worth anything at all. Sometimes it takes you to really great places, like the Sheffield Crucible.