December 12, 2013
True to Ibsen but in sneakers
This week, the highlight of the Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA) was for sure Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (Berlin)’s Ein Volksfeind, a version of Ibsen’s An enemy of the people written by Florian Borchmeyer and directed by Thomas Ostermeier. This German company specializes in contemporary and experimental theatre, rendering new, critical interpretations of the classics. This is clearly the case of Ein Volksfeind, staged at theTeatro San Martín as part of FIBA’s programme.
In the play, Dr. Stockmann discovers that the town’s water supply is contaminated by industrial pollution. He wants to report it in the local newspaper and demands that the City Council re-route the water pipes. Influential citizens and local journalists promise to support Dr. Stockmann’s project. However, his brother Peter, the mayor, raises some serious concerns: the economic prosperity of the town will be threatened. Suddenly everyone turns their back on the doctor, but Stockmann insists on transparency and intends to go public on the matter.
In an all-important speech, he hopes to win the town over at the risk of being ostracized by the community and becoming “an enemy of the people,” which would also hurt his family.
In Ibsen’s drama there’s a fine line between honesty and fanaticism; the leading character is what George Bernard Shaw identified as “idealistic villain”: a typical Ibsenian character with positive and negative features, because his purposes are unquestionably good but he defends his ideas at all cost, even if it means harming the people closest to him.
The Schaubühne version shows the relevance of Ibsen’s piece today, avoiding an archeological approach. On the contrary, the play has been updated to make it absolutely contemporary. Although the play was written in 1882, nothing in this new version to have been brought to the present by force. Firstly, the excellent actors chosen for this production are, in general, younger than the characters in the original play.
Most of them are dressed in contemporary casual attire. Stockmann is a passionate and serious doctor, but he is also part of an indie pop music band together with the journalists (who will betray him later) and his wife (who will stand by him).
Right from the start and all through the play pop music (including a “beatbox”) brings audiences closer to the play. This may at first seem surprising, but these modern elements do not look strange in this 19th century play. Moreover, the modern elements give the production an air of naturalness that underlines the importance of the topic in today’s world.
In addition, Ein... has many funny scenes which do not diminish its vital implications. In this sense, this staging is true to Ibsen’s intentions. Ibsen himself said he was not very sure whether his play could be defined as a comedy or as a drama, because it had elements from both.
The set design is decidedly one of the biggest assets of this staging. It is simple and witty at the same time: a set of black panels with the furniture and landscape drawn with white chalk on them. The panels are covered with white painting when Stockmann says his famous speech, and later stained with other colours when he is attacked by his opponents.
Instead of reproducing a typical 19th century bourgeois home (as would only be natural with Ibsen’s realistic style), Ostermeier chose an overtly “constructed” space, stressing the theatricality and the nature of this fiction. The hyperrealistic presence of Stockmann’s father-in-law with a real dog on stage is just a gimmick that further enhances the aesthetics of this production.
In this sense, even if it may sound contradictory or anachronistic, in some way, Ibsen becomes Brechtian in this version. Indeed, there is a great Brechtian “break” during Stockmann’s speech — the lights come up and the actors, still playing their roles, address viewers and invite them to vote and participate in the debate between Stockmann and his opponents (the whole town). Members of the audience thus give their opinion about the doctor’s ideas on the failures of democracy and how majorities are never right. This is a very exciting moment, because viewers, who in general agree with Stockmann, running contrary to the play, are willing to compromise. This is political theatre in every sense.
A classic remains a classic because it maintains its thought-provoking nature regardless of the passing of time. While Ibsen stressed the importance of the individual (at a time when emancipation was the great issue), now the Schaubühne reflect the extreme situations provoked by individualism these days, in a capitalistic era, and the dangers of the phrase “I am what I am.”