“An Enemy of the People” at Cal Performances

“An Enemy of the People” at Cal Performances

Carol Benet

Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” is as timely now as when it was written in 1882.  It deals with pollution, capitalism, corruption, news, boosterism, lying in government and yet human nature’s fight for social justice.

In the same season that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting a new version of  Ibsen’s “A Doll House”, Cal Performances restaged “An Enemy of the People for only two nights, October 12 and 13. The Schaubühne Berlin, one of the most famous theaters in the world, brought this amazing production to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Campus

The Schaubühne’s fresh version with a script in German by Florian Borchmeyer places the play in a small German town in current times. Dr. Stockmann (Christoph Gawenda), a medical doctor who works for the city, suspects that the water that supplies the spa contains poisonous bacteria.  People come from all over the country to seek the cure from its waters and the spa creates many local jobs and is the source of the city’s burgeoning economy.

Stockman is at home with his wife (Eva Meckbachi), their baby and friends who work at the local paper, Billing (Moritz Gottwald) and Aslaksen (David Ruland).  A letter comes from the lab confirming Stockmann’s suspicions.  The water is toxic.  Biling is the assistant editor of the newspaper and encourages him to write an article exposing the situation.  They are elated until Stockmann’s older brother Peter (Conrad Singers) enters as a good bourgeois dressed in a suit and tie as opposed to his younger brother’s grungy jeans (Costumes by Nina Wetzel). Peter is firmly against letting this information reach the publlc.

Not only is Peter a councilman but he is chairman alf the baths that feed the city’s economy.  He tells his brother to cool it and anyway there are the proper hierarchies to go through when dealing with government issues like this.  It would be fool hearty to publish an article about this.  The doctor argues that the public needs transparency from its officials.

So far we are following Ibsen’s story.  What is new is the modernization of the play with music in English (Malte Beckenbach and Daniel Freitag) sometimes played on a guitar by Billig who, when he puts on his earphones,  the music becomes blaring, The others contribute percussion to the pop songs in English.

And little by little they are thwarted in their efforts, first by Peter and then by Hovstad (Renato Schuch), the editor of the newspaper that is ironically named  “The People’s Messenger”.  Horvstad  kills parts of the story. Mrs. Stockmann’s father Morten Kiil (Thomas Bading) comes and goes with his ominous police dog.  He becomes essential to the story as he owns the tanning mill that pollutes the water.  But clever businessman that he is, he comes up with a shady financial scheme that would make him and Stockmann and his wife rich. Everyone would have a hand in the corruption.

With a very modern touch similar to what is happening at the Berkeley Rep’s “Fairview”, playing through October 4, 2018, the cast turns to the audience and breaks down the fourth wall of the theatrical construction.  After an impassioned speech by an almost crazed Doctor who is seeking justice, not only for the pollution problem but for all the injustices facing the world today about  the corrupt governments and people and industries following them in order to enrich themselves and preserve their jobs. Horvstad takes a microphone, turns to the audience and asks them penetrating questions about their beliefs.   This breakdown of the fourth wall is also happening at the end of “Fairview”.  It is the new form where the audience participates in the theater that it came to witness.

The Schaubühne Berlin is world famous for it’s avant-garde productions that they stage all over the world.  Thomas Ostermeier,, who directed this play, is its Artistic Director.  They travel with10 productions a year and have 30 more in its repertoire.  As with this play it incorporates music in many of them  Most of the plays, like “An Enemy of the People”, are classics.  The Schaubühne  uses a form of storytelling and stylistic interpretations that bring the classics up-to-date.  Jan Pappelbam’s set with walls made of huge blackboards on which drawings (Katharina Ziemke) extend the set.  Printed slogans also serve as part of the action.  Later cast members wash the blackboard and paint over it in a stark white that receives the angry paint balls thrown at the Doctor by an angry crowd after his speech.  Erich Schneider’s lighting heightens the drama.

The play is in German with supertitles on a back wall but the characters switch into English at times.  Bring your distance classes as the supertitles are somewhat small.

“An Enemy of the People” produced by the Schaubühne Berlin is an example of some of the finest world theater that often originates in Germany where state subsidies support the arts.  In America the arts are dependent on private donations of wealthy individuals, corporations and sometimes foreign governments (Saudi Arabia in some American museums).  Despite its dependence on state support, German  theater is often anti-establishment and points a finger at social and political injustices.

After the performance of “An Enemy of the People”, you cannot help but go out of the theater saying ”plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” and adding,  “So what’s new?”  Watch for a return of the Schaubühne Berlin as part of Cal Performances future exciting programs of the latest in theater, dance, music and spectacle. www.calperformances.org


About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →