Review – Public Enemy – Young Vic

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As an Ibsen completist, I was excited by the opportunity to see a production of Enemy of the People (charmingly retitled as Public Enemy but no rapping), so much the better that seats at this Young Vic production were available for £10. Be warned, though, cheap seats fans, of the danger of the front row, far left seats: for a good section of the first scene, of two actors I could only see a hat; and for the second act, a long section in which the actors were actually in front of the curtain required me to crane my neck so far (and so long) to the right I thought I was going to get the theatrical equivalent of deep vein thrombosis. Balcony seats will likely save you from cramping.

Plotwise, Public Enemy is just as on topic now as it would have been when written – well, mostly. The lead character is a doctor who is going to save a spa town from the pollution that’s making spa-goers sick; however, when it turns out the consequences of fixing this problem will cause the ruination of the town, suddenly even his wife is asking him to reconsider letting the cat out of the bag. The situation, of a small town with a small economy and a whistleblower who’s going to upset things, has all sorts of easy-to-see parallels with our society; but the political environment is quite different. The local government in the play is far more prone to cronyism than today (not so many people appointing family members to public office); there’s a real fear of communism and yet the local publisher is proud to be a socialist; and, shockingly, the doctor himself posits anti-democratic beliefs that are right out of the Ayn Rand handbook. “The majority makes the rules, but you’re willing to admit that most people are stupid! You should all be shot!” (Oh my.)

This leads to some interesting tension as a play viewer. You want the doctor to stand up for what is right (not having people die from the poisoned water at the spa), you want him to do it more than he worries about his career (or even his family), but suddenly when he starts talking about his own superiority to the people of the town he lives in, your sympathy for him evaporates. Yeah, he is probably better educated than most of the townspeople; sure, a lot of people “vote with their wallets” (private interest over public interest); but … if he really believes that everyone is ignorant and the ignorant should be “put out of their misery” rather than be allowed to participate in government, well, all I can say is Nietzsche did it better and the consequences were pretty horrible, and maybe the good doctor should be looking at a better investment in education for his fellow citizens.

But there is no way to not feel the pull of individual greed in influencing bad decisions: you can see it today in the factory collapses in Bangladesh and the recent fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. Both individuals and governments influenced by the self-interest of the rich work to try to do things on the cheap; and the result is that people die in entirely preventable incidents. It’s amazing to watch both the newspaper editor and the publisher collapse in the face of their own loss were the doctor’s report to be published: suddenly their concern for “the public good” and “the people” are revealed to be easily punctured in the face of reduced revenue. And it’s hard not to value someone who’s willing to stand up to public pressure to save people’s lives. I’ll agree with the doctor: the minority is the one from which ideas and change generate, and minority interests need to be protected. But at the end, when he says that the strongest man is the one who stands by himself, well, in this version at least, he’s shown to be a madman. Frankly, I prefer him as a slightly misguided hero, but … well, it’s lovely that Ibsen has created a show so vibrant that there’s this much to talk about, and I was very happy to have the whole thing race along in less than 1:45 (a possible interval was replaced by a set change). If you like your theater served with a heavy side dish of politics, this play is highly recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. It continues through June 8th.)

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