Chichester Festival Theatre Booking until 21 May 2016
Would you be a whistle blower? That’s the question posed in Ibsen’s renowned play. How far would you go to ensure you told the truth? Would you be able to stick to your morals or would you bow down in order to have a good safe life for yourself and your family?
Dr Tomas Stockmann (Hugh Bonneville), Chief Medical Officer of the health baths, has discovered that the town’s spa baths are a “sink of disease” and that the water is poisonous, so the entire water system needs to be re-laid. In spite of opposition from his brother, Peter Stockman, the Mayor (William Gaminara), he is encouraged by the enthusiasm of Hovsted (Adam James), editor of the local paper and his sub-editor, Billing (Michael Fox) and of Alaksen (Jonathan Cullen), the Chairman of the Property Owners. While his father-in-law, Morten Kiil (Trevor Cooper) congratulates Tomas on his stand against the leaders of the town, the others begin to change their minds.
Originally supportive of Tomas’s view that it is his moral duty to expose the truth, the Mayor’s assertion that it will be too costly, take too long and the baths would have to close for two years which would mean the loss of their lucrative tourist trade and furthermore, the townspeople would have to pay, results in the newspapermen and Alaksen admitting they “dare not” print Tomas’s article exposing the truth. The crucial central scene sees Stockmann addressing a public meeting – with biased interruptions against him by Alaksen and the Mayor – branded “an enemy of the people.” Tomas has to find a way to continue to be true to himself, saying no to those who do not dare to support him and want him to retract and apologise and to live a worthwhile life with his wife and children who do support him.
The cast present their characters as rounded people so that we listen to the point of view each gives and sometimes agree and at other times disagree. Director Howard Davies conducts the action in such a way that the audience is able to focus on each person as they present their argument to Tomas.
Alice Orr-Ewing gives us a young woman who we can believe really follows her father. She admires his insistence on communicating the truth and accepts her fate – being sacked from her teaching job – as a price for her support. We can believe, too, in Abigail Cruttenden’s loyal wife who is torn between protecting her children’s future or showing solidarity with her husband. Trevor Cooper gives a nice little cameo when he changes from supporting to opposing his son-in-law on hearing him condemn his tannery business.
Above all we have Hugh Bonneville. Praised most recently for his TV performances in Downton Abbey and W1A, we are reminded of his prowess as a stage actor. Bonneville seems a pleasant man and this comes across in his portrayal of the honest doctor. He shows anger well and is completely believable as a man who will fight to the end for what he believes is right. This is a strong, true performance.
Ibsen’s play, presented in Christopher Hampton’s translation, has much to say of relevance to today’s problems. On education we hear the teacher Petra saying children are being taught untruths. The issue of the environmental hazard of polluted water is explored and, of course, the way whistle blowers often become enemies of the State but heroes of the people.
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Review by Carlie Newman