Public Enemy – review

Young Vic, London

There are no rules in theatre. Updating a classic can sometimes work brilliantly, as with Benedict Andrews' Three Sisters at the Young Vic last year. But David Harrower's new 100-minute version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, directed by Richard Jones, is problematic as well as provocative: there's a nagging discrepancy between Ibsen's late 19th-century plot and point of view, and the 21st-century setting.

Harrower has carefully compressed Ibsen's storyline. Once again, we see Dr Stockmann, chief medical officer in a Norwegian spa, discovering that the town's baths are toxic. Expecting to be acclaimed for his revelation, instead Stockmann finds the whole town turning against him: not just his mayoral brother, but also the liberal press and self-interested businessmen. This triggers Stockmann's famous confrontation with the community in which he ringingly declares that the majority are enemies of truth and that "the minority is always right".

It's always a difficult moment for a modern audience: the crusading reformer turning into an intellectual aristocrat. But solutions can be found: in 2008, Greg Hicks transformed Stockmann into a Nordic Coriolanus at London's Arcola, and two years later Antony Sher at the Sheffield Crucible implied injustice had unhinged the hero's wits. Here, however, nothing seems quite right. Harrower has altered Ibsen's text so that Stockmann's targets include not just politicians and the "gang rape of democracy", but the whole consumer society and our apathetic selves: he reminds me of a bar-room bore banging on about the country going to hell in a handcart. And by making the audience victims of Stockmann's tirade, Jones's production also turns our passivity into endorsement. When Stockmann asks: "Has anyone here one good word to say about politicians?", I wondered what would happen if someone stood up, as I felt like doing, and saying, "Actually, yes."

Nick Fletcher is a perfectly decent Stockmann: pinning up wallcharts about bacteria, he's more scientific rationalist than blazing idealist, which makes the character's descent into ranting hysteria harder to fathom. There is lively support from Darrell D'Silva as the bullying mayor, Niall Ashdown as a nervous printer and Charlotte Randle as a pensively sceptical Mrs Stockmann. But although Miriam Buether has come up with an extraordinary set – all stripped pine, garish austerity and twinkling trees – it takes more than clever design to make this a play for today. I suspect one would have to trim Stockmann's rhetoric and totally rewrite Ibsen's plot for the modern world. It has, of course, already been done with spectacular success in Jaws, which feels far closer to Ibsen's spirit than this jangling update.

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Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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