An Enemy of the People at the Nottingham Playhouse review ****

An Enemy of the People

Nottingham Playhouse, 28th September 2019

Another day, another Ibsen update. After Tanika Gupta’s intelligent relocation of A Doll’s House to colonial India and Cordelia Lynn’s not quite so successful ageing of Hedda Gabler, the Tourist’s next stop was Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s transformation of Henrik’s prototype eco-warrior and inconvenient truth teller, Doctor Thomas Stockmann, into Doctor Theresa. Marvellous to see three immensely talented women writers transform the always relevant work of Norway’s groundbreaking progressive genius.

Of course Ibsen’s target in AEOTP is not the way in which the hidebound morality of C19 Norway, for which read the rest of Western society, stifled liberal progress and especially women. For sure it was written as a riposte to the critics of its “scandalous” predecessor Ghosts, and takes a potshot at the hypocrisy of the conservative community in which it is set, but for me it is more a critique of the greed and corruption that disfigures uncontrolled capitalism.

It therefore doesn’t need the gender change to work as drama but, my goodness, as a conceit it really works. Stockmann, deliberately, is normally a man who lets his ego get the better of him. Ibsen thus plays with our sympathies. He is nailed-on in the right when he takes on the municipal authorities in the form of his boss, the mayor and, famously, his brother, Peter Mattsson, and plainly deliberately poisoning your guests is not a good look for a spa town, but the way in which Tommy takes his case to people and press does come across as, shall we say, a little overwrought. Dr Theresa is made of the same stuff, but as a woman, with a supportive, though tested, husband and a patronising elder brother, the motivations for her urgency become satisfyingly complex.

The prolific and multi-talented Rebecca Lenkiewicz has previous with AEOTP so knows it inside out. Here she has taken a literal translation from Charlotte Barslund, and deftly adapted it to a modern vernacular, without sacrificing any of the small-town claustrophobia and moral ambiguity that informs the original. There are a few moments when the attempt to shoe-horn in today’s political discourse – fake news, whistle blowers, the liberal elite vs the manipulated masses, the disparaging of expert opinion and that little matter called Brexit – are somewhat too transparent, the play doesn’t need it as it is already all there, but the central gender conceit, and the fact that “strong woman” Dr T won’t be silenced, really resonates.

As director Adam Penford plainly relishes the opportunity to build on such firm foundations of plot, character and text as does the cast led by her off the telly Alex Kingston. Ms Kingston, as the character demands, doesn’t hold back, occasionally leaving some of her colleagues in her defiant wake, but fortunately the one person who has to take her on, performance wise as well as dramatically, is him off the telly Malcolm Sinclair as brother Peter. He was magnetic as Eisenhower in David Haig’s Pressure and here is all supercilious, Rees-Moggian entitlement as he attempts to bulldoze his amoral way through Dr T’s evidence and objections, questioning her science and her sanity.

Of course AEOTP is not just about the battle of wills between brother and sister. Emma Pallant also stands out as Ulrika Hovstad the, now female, editor of the progressive local paper, prepared to turn principle on a sixpence when money starts talking and opinion turns, as does Tim Samuels as smarmy Aslaksen, the spineless printer. Deka Walmsley as steadfast husband Christopher, Richard Evans as his father, the contrary, and wealthy, tannery owner, Morten Kil, Donna Banya as idealist daughter Petra, Jordan Peters as Hovstad’s sidekick Billing and Karl Haynes as loyal friend Captain Horster, all slot in admirably.

There is humour in the adaptation, though maybe not quite in the way Ibsen intended, and Tina MacHugh’s lighting, Drew Baumohl’s sound and Frans Bak’s composition, all step in during the crucial scenes to up the required ante alongside Morgan Large’s versatile set, notably in the impassioned speech that Dr T makes to the Skein community in the pouring rain in Act V. This is where Dr T’s frustration with the masses boils over and her contempt is barely hidden, (and where some of Ibsen’s whackier notions are vocalised in the original). Sound familiar? Us London metropolitan elite patronising you provincial dimwits. It is powerful stuff made more so because even in adaptation these same arguments were being rehearsed in C19 Norway (as they were in 5th century BCE, Jacobean England or C18 Germany if you pay attention to the finest dramatists).

Another winner then from Adam Penford and his team. As with Robert Hastie in Sheffield and James Dacre in Northampton he keeps his directorial powder dry, but when he does let fly theatre that is on a par with the very best the capital can offer is invariably the result.

Pressure at the Park Theatre review ***

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Pressure

Park Theatre, 26th April 2018

I had high hopes for Pressure. I have said before that the Park Theatre has a knack of mounting a wide array of productions, which, on paper at least, sound interesting, though execution can be variable. If I am honest Pressure, initially, wasn’t one of them. But the reviews from previous performances in Edinburgh and Chichester and the presence as writer, and performer, of David Haig, and the Park’s always jolly atmosphere, reeled me in. When it transpired that the production was transferring to the West End, (the Ambassador’s Theatre from, in a nod to its content, the 6th June), I confess to feeling inwardly smug that I had got in early, along with the full houses which the Park has secured.

Talking of smug, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, there is a faint air of the self-satisfied about Mr Haig’s performances. Most recently I have seen him play the arrogant, borderline racist Dr Robert Smith in the Young Vic’s revival of Joe Penhall’s marvellous play Blue/Orange alongside some blokes called Daniel Kaluuya and Luke Norris who you might know. Let us hope Mr Penhall’s latest offering, Mood Music, at the Old Vic matches this. He also played the enigmatic Player in the said Old Vic’s recent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In both cases, and in some of his telly roles, he nails down the patronising pomposity of a certain type of middle-aged Brit expert, whilst revealing any vulnerability or desperation that might lie behind the surface.

I am sure that, outside work, he could not be more different, though his writing, the text of Pressure is intimidatingly exact in terms of directions, suggests otherwise. Regardless, what I can say is that when he gets his teeth into a character there are few more stirring sights than Mr Haig in full flow. So if I tell you that he has written a dramatic account of the real life contribution of meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg, to the D Day invasion on June 6th 1944, it will likely not come as too much of a surprise. GC Stagg, on this account, was a dour, uncompromising Scot, who staked his reputation on convincing the Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower, here played by Malcolm Sinclair, to first hold off, and then go ahead with the invasion plans, despite apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the opinion of his breezy American counterpart Colonel Irving P Krick (Philip Cairns).

It would have made a gripping black and white film in the 1950s or even a one off TV drama today. And that, in part, is something of its problem. It is a powerful story, but, once the die is cast, it is theatrically predictable and Mr Haig presents it that way. The pressure on GC Stagg is, compounded by his wife’s troubled pregnancy. The isobars on the charts measure pressure. We see the pressure mount on Eisenhower as he makes his fateful decisions. There are no real surprises in what the characters do or say and there are times when they verge on cliche.

On the other hand Mr Haig has wisely introduced a major female role in the form of Kay Summersby, the aide-de-camp to Eisenhower. She is played with clip-vowelled exactitude by Laura Rodgers, who I admired in Rules for Living at the Rose Kingston and Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree, (a play that continues to linger long in the mind). Malcolm Sinclair as Eisenhower is also impressive though I have no idea what the man himself was like, and the rest of the cast lend solid support. Director John Dove has collaborated with Mr Haig before on his most famous play (and film) My Boy Jack, based on the relationship between Rudyard Kipling and his son, so doesn’t mess about with Mr Haig’s story.

I appreciate that I am sounding a bit sniffy about Pressure. I don’t mean to be. It is, in its own conventional way, very effective and David Haig turns in an exemplary performance. If this sounds like your sort of thing then don’t hesitate to get down to the Ambassador’s.