Thursday 16 May 2013

“Public Enemy” – Young Vic

["Vi kommer til å trenge en større filtrering enhet"*]

You want more acting? THIS MUCH MORE ACTING?
The heart of Ibsen’s En Folkefiende is a MASSIVE FUCKING PLOT-HOLE. This is made especially clear and galling by Richard Jones’s new production for the Young Vic. The key issue of Isben’s drama – not changed one iota in David Harrower’s “version”, which then oddly finds itself put into a clunking Norway-in-the-Seventies setting – is that a small town has styled itself as a bathing resort, only for the town’s maverick Doctor Stockmann to discover that these baths are full of toxic bacteria.

It’s a pity for the town, sure, but it’s also an open and shut case. Stockmann has the scientific evidence. However, the town mayor (who also happens to be Stockmann’s brother), seems to reckon it’s just a matter of hushing up these findings and carrying on as if nothing had happened. The reasons given for Not Doing Anything tend to focus on the damage that publicising the problem would have on the town’s economy and the significant costs of cleaning up the problem (which is here presented as totally do-able, but just prohibitively expensive). All this seems to rather ignore that fact that, given Stockmann is right (we must presume, and it wouldn’t hurt the characters to at least consider) the alternative the town is choosing to face instead is *at the very best* half a successful season, followed by a mountain of corpses and some very difficult questions being asked.

I’m just about prepared to go along with the idea that the idea of lawsuits for corporate manslaughter were an underdeveloped phenomena in 1882 Norway, and even that health and safety checks on bathing water were not routine... But, probably *after* the bodies start piling up, and given that the science exists enough for Dr Stockmann to have discovered the toxic properties, surely someone else would also be able to also put two and two together. At which point, even if the town successfully en masse manages to deny any prior knowledge of the toxicity of its deathtrap resort, the ongoing success of the resort is still totally shafted, with the added stigma of having its name forever linked to the deaths of hundreds of holidaymakers.

It’s just silly.

Which rather short-circuits the first three acts of the play, since no one once addresses this glaring omission.

Of course we can all still think in the modern world of examples of local councils, or companies, or governments, or global corporations who have flouted health and safety, who have put the lives of workers, or even populations at risk. On the other hand, the way that this town is painted – small, economically precarious – suggests that they are hardly in a position to be able to take risks.

Yes, I know we’re meant to see it as, y’know, a metaphor for a wider tendency toward a corrosive, damaging self-interest of a community. But when – sitting in the stalls – you could fill the holes in their arguments with water and call them another bathing resort, but no one on stage even addresses them, then the whole debate feels stupid and redundant.

However, this is only the first three acts. Ibsen has another trick up his sleeve for Act Four, in which Stockmann is to address the town over his findings and is supposed to plead with them to see reason. Instead of sensibly pointing out to them that if they don’t clean up their bathing resort, then they will have a massive lawsuit on their hands, Stockmann opts to denounce the entire town as fools, and proceed to give a lengthy rant about the primacy of the intellectual individual over the stupid masses like some kind of proto-Ayn Rand.

In 2013, we can see this speech for what it is – seductive fascistic nonsense. We have perhaps, for example, read John Carey’s forensic examination of this sort of thinking in The Intellectuals and The Masses (which I happen to be re-reading now), which draws a detailed picture of the emergence of this sort of post-Nietzschean thinking, traces it through the intellectuals and artists of the 1880s through to the 1930s, where it found its logical conclusion in Hitler’s rise to power. So, yes, liberal humanism had its problems back then. And, sure, the rhetoric in David Harrower’s version certainly makes it clear that you can knock up a modern-sounding version of the same which sounds very familiar, cf. the humorous columns of, say, Charlie Brooker, David Mitchell, or anyone else who makes a living despairing at the stupidity of the majority of other people (I would have included Richard Littlejohn or Quentin Letts, except, strangely for humourists, they make their fun picking on minorities, not masses).

Still, Stockmann’s basic schoolboy error is the same as that of Coriolanus and Gerald Ratner: he tells the people that he thinks they’re idiots to their face. Which tends to be a poor way of winning round an audience.

Irritation with Ibsen’s 131-year-old story aside, time should also be taken to wonder what the hell Richard Jones thinks he is doing.  David Harrower’s “version” of the play is a curiously colourless object. Just about speakable, it does feel rather that Harrower has let himself be steamrollered a bit by the literal translation provided for him to do his version. As such, there’s no real point in this having been done by a playwright at all. As with his clunking version of Woyzeck, you could probably get any half-intelligent actor to paraphrase a better version of the text from the literal.

Jones, in collaboration with designer Miriam Buether, the contrives to make the blandness of the tranlsation even stranger by setting the the production in a remarkably ugly room in 1970s Norway. The back wall is knowingly appalling orange 70s wallpaper, the rest of the the shallow stage, a varnished wooden cabin. A window, stage right, inexplicably gives onto a glittery kitsch picture of a fjord. Despite the half-assed presence of a – clichéd – “revolutionary” stencil later, none of the language is especially that of seventies European left-wingers.

Indeed, one spends the first three Acts wondering what on earth could possibly have made Jones pick this period. Does he just like actors in scratchy-looking nylon clothes? Is this Norway at its most recently quintessential? Is this the last possible point in European history that anyone seriously considered social change? The whole thing feels like someone being glib and embarrassed by the earnestness of their material and attempting to defuse any possible seriousness with a kitschy, ironic, knowing, hipster set. Great.

Also, what the hell happened to the acting? There are some seriously good actors in this play. And there is also Darrell D’Silva, but you can’t have everything. But even the good actors (notably Nick Fletcher and Bryan Dick) seem to have been directed into doing a bunch of very odd shouting. Elsewhere there is woodenness that puts the log cabin to shame. Indeed, the style is so strange that I honestly wondered if I was missing the point of a particularly significant stylistic choice. It feels as if the whole thing might have taken its cue from a a 70s farce, or else some strange stylised form of acting deployed by New York or German avant gardists.

Perhaps the most galling part of this largely galling staging, however, is the totally bogus use of direct audience address. This scene which – like Mark Antony’s also famously problematic-to-stage funeral oration – can be played either to an onstage audience or to the actual audience, is here played out to the audience.

Except, being British theatre, we know exactly what is expected of us: nothing.

I couldn’t help wishing that I had been watching Thomas Ostermeier’s Volksfeind instead (TBH, that was true throughout, but it was most true here). Matt Trueman gives the most glowing account of the electricity that the opening of this speech into an actual discussion in the audience, although Jana Percovic’s counter-argument against Ostermeier is also vital reading (which last night I had remembered as this much more favourable piece about Berlin audience interaction).

But, no. We are emphatically not expected to speak. I was briefly excited that something vaguely radical might have been about to happen, but it didn’t. Granted, this part of the staging is still far and away the most successful part of the play. Apart from anything else suddenly makes total sense of the reconfigured Young Vic auditorium – which is set up a bit like a small public meeting in a town hall might be – but by doing so, it also stops the whole rest of the staging making any sense at all. And the fact during the scene we’re both *there* (our applause is the applause in the hall) and *not there* (what would have happened if any of us *had* asked a question? I wanted to ask about what year it was. I had a bunch of smart arse questions; I was ready to go. But at the same time, I kind of got the impression that wasn’t the game, and I didn’t want to spoil the evening for everyone else) – how does that work? Does it work? And who are we when we’re watching the stuff before and after the meeting? Is the wooden acting intended to indicate that we’re seeing part of a kind of pre- and post-town hall meeting burlesque?

Actually, to an extent, the slipping-between-modes-thing can be fine (it isn’t here, but it can be). The being co-opted without being co-opted is less good. Not least because the audience in the theatre could have probably turned the course of the play around. After all, Stockmann’s vanity shouldn’t really be allowed to trump the life and death matter of the poisoned water. And science isn’t a democracy.

Ironically, I should note that the performance was well-attended, with a laudable spread of people, and received an enthusiastic response when it finished. At which point, on first glance, to dismiss these diverse peoples enjoyment of the show would seem like a massive bit of Stockmannism.

However, I think this distinction can be drawn – there is nothing wrong with any of the people who enjoyed Public Enemy last night. However, I think there is a better production of the play – one with fewer internal contradictions and a greater willingness to work out why the hell it is staging the play in the first place – that they could have enjoyed more. One doesn’t have to be a snob or a dangerous Ayn Rand-alike to believe that we could all be being given something better.


What is with the publicity image? (see above) It’s perhaps the most confusing part of the production. It seems to almost suggest that the version the Young Vic wanted was more to do with Malcolm X and methamphetamine. Now *that* would be a production:

Mayor: But our community needs the money!

Malcolm X: But I’ve done some tests and it turns out this methamphetamine you’ve been selling everyone is really bad for them!

Mayor: The game’s the game.


Post-post script: I am blaming the fact I saw this almost entirely on Henry Hitchings (well, him and the fact it’s still kind of my job). He wrote a perfectly fair-minded three-star review for the Standard, which I happened to read on the Tube. Sadly, it contained the words: “The use of strobe lights is one of several conceits that are too abrasive”. And it put me in mind of Hitchings’s three-star review of Three Kingdoms (“the symbolism becomes overwrought. Strenuous attention is paid to the seemingly trivial... The results are disorientating — sometimes in a good way, sometimes not... The spectacle can be cloying,”) and so I had to check for myself.

FWIW, I didn’t think there were nearly enough conceits, and the strobe lights weren’t nearly abrasive enough. If only there could have been more moments like that.

[* "We're going to need a bigger water-filtration unit"]


Anonymous said...

If you didn't make a comment, how do you know you weren't supposed to make a comment?

Andrew Haydon said...

Hard to say. What's the most oppressive room you've ever sat in?

Henry Hitchings said...

Sorry, Andrew. I'll buy you a [drink of choice, not Krug] next time I see you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew,

Excellent review. And how nice to find you.

Saw this last night. I think more blame has to be put on the director than the actors for the wooden acting and the incongruous melodramatic physical actions, though.

It is, as you say, a hard play to pull off because of the gigantic man-hole in the plot (but I think plot is not why we-or I- go to see Ibsen). It's also a hard play to pull off because its moral argument, rather than carrying any great subtlety,is a slap in the face. But this version, connecting political power to economic power and advertising (no, really?)made the morality seem inane; something picked up from a kid's brightly coloured book.

Look forward to reading your other reviews.