The week in theatre: An Enemy of the People; King Lear; Double Feature – review

<span>‘Terrific’ Matt Smith (Dr Stockmann), with Nigel Lindsay (Morten Kiil), in An Enemy of the People.</span><span>Photograph: Manuel Harlan</span>
‘Terrific’ Matt Smith (Dr Stockmann), with Nigel Lindsay (Morten Kiil), in An Enemy of the People.Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Like a dramatic Tardis, Henrik Ibsen’s play about whistleblowing, entrenched power and populism crashes through 142 years and lands on today’s bruised principles. A terrific Matt Smith stars in a dynamic modern refashioning of An Enemy of the People by director Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubühne in Berlin (English version by Duncan Macmillan). The production tweaks Ibsen’s feminism and lights up some gloomy corners with humour. It is an urgent but tendentious rendering of an ambivalent play.

Public health versus economic security. Institutional openness versus cover-ups and spin. Ibsen’s central concerns could hardly be more on the pulse of today. Dr Stockmann (Smith) discovers that the water supply to the municipal baths is polluted. The case for closure is evident and Stockmann has the eager support of journalists – until his brother, a local government official, argues that closure will destroy the town’s newfound prosperity. The news about contamination disappears.

The action cracks along, mostly helped by modernising touches. A blackboard becomes whitewashed as information is suppressed; Bowie’s Changes frequently stammers in the background. Performances are natural but edgy: the smallish part of Stockmann’s wife – here given a proper job as well as a baby – is sharply defined by Jessica Brown Findlay; Zachary Hart is outstanding as a gangling turncoat who blocks out unwelcome news with headphones. Smith himself segues finely from steady conviction to righteous anger. As he delivers his big address to the townspeople, Stockmann’s assurance is flecked with vanity. His furrowed brow and shining eyes become slightly overemphatic: he believes what he is saying all right, but he is also performing his beliefs.

The storm on the heath is one of the most lashing I’ve seen: bolts of lightning, great bangs of thunder

This speech is the crux of the production, proving its power and exposing a limitation. Smith delivers it directly to the audience, with house lights up. Spectators are asked to vote for or against – and to comment. I unhesitatingly voted in favour but would have done so with more satisfaction if the arguments had been more evenly distributed: if Paul Hilton’s officious brother had been less unflinchingly sour; if the case had been made more clearly that financial collapse would result in social destitution. It was invigorating to hear audience members speaking up – eloquently damning the state of schools, the NHS and sometimes exploding. “Who said “bollocks?” asked Priyanga Burford, moderating with her customary aplomb. Afterwards I felt uneasy that, no one having voiced a view contrary to mine, I was too comfortably part of a concensus. Yet it was the play that had made me question the comfort. Another skewer in a rousing evening.

There is no comfort in King Lear, whose devastations – psychic, elemental, as well as social – are at the far theatrical pole from Ibsen’s political realism. Yet the tragedy can make audiences fly, as it does in Yaël Farber’s dark and swirling production.

Danny Sapani’s Lear is commanding, the bass note from which everything springs. The mighty rumble of his voice proclaims authority; it can seem, as it does in the tempest, part of the weather itself – yet in distraction he makes it papery and thin. At Cordelia’s death his “howl” is terrifying, like a creature caught in a trap; not – as so often – a declaration of pain but the pain itself.

Merle Hensel’s evocative, enabling design hangs strings of chainmail over a background of brick; they swing like strings of raindrops. Substance is shrouded and melted by Lee Curran’s marvellous dusky lighting. There is no realism to rein in abandon. The storm on the heath is one of the most lashing I’ve seen: bolts of lightning, great bangs of thunder. Matthew Tennyson’s Poor Tom is not just a gibbering chap with smudges on his face, but a man-sprite who races around the stage with a huge sheet of polythene billowing out like ectoplasm.

The often awkward aspects of King Lear are given new life, the more believable for being acted with conviction in a dreamscape. Clarke Peters as the Fool (carrying an umbrella which gives him a touch of music hall), is a whimsy-free clown, a true companion, who seems to fade into Lear himself. Gloria Obianyo rescues Cordelia from being one of the most pill-like of Shakespearean women: her refusal to flatter, which can easily look like priggery, becomes an act of rebellion, in line with the fact that she is the only one of the sisters who wears trousers; when she turns to soldiering, she looks wholly martial.

The Almeida is a small stage but Farber suggests a big space. Wide sympathies too. The director has talked about drawing on her South African upbringing when thinking of King Lear as a play in which people must “make homes beneath the sky”. At the end, the cast gather around flames – Lear’s “wheel of fire” – as if in a wild place. Dylan sings A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.

In Double Feature, John Logan, screenwriter of Skyfall and Gladiator, acclaimed for his Rothko play, Red, now examines painful, productive relationships between movie directors and their stars. Alfred Hitchcock paws Tippi Hedren while shooting Marnie; Vincent Price is cajoled out of horror ham in Witchfinder General by the idealistic director Michael Reeves, who shortly afterwards was dead at the age of 25.

Jonathan Hyde, Ian McNeice, Rowan Polonski and Joanna Vanderham lightly inhabit their parts without full-on mimicry. There is, though, nothing light about Logan’s script. Laden with theories and tantalising facts but lacking propulsion, it marches from one debate to the next: directors mete out abuse and are themselves commercially constrained; difficult off-screen confrontations may yield on-screen gold; fading and rising talents are alike desperate. Echoes between the two pairs, whose encounters are acted side by side, occasionally interlock, with couples chorusing the same words, but the parallels don’t fuse. Backstories are mentioned but barely felt. Usually a dart as a director, Jonathan Kent can do little but underscore the overdeliberate script.

Nuggets gleam through. The setting – plausibly conjured in Anthony Ward’s design of brown wood and Staffordshire dogs – conflates the cottage in which Reeves worked and Hitchcock’s bungalow on the Universal lot, designed as an English cottage. Price borrows his wife’s makeup (he doesn’t need to explain “it’s a mask”!). Hedren wears gloves to cover up her dermatitis. After a startling revelation, immaculate Grace Kelly is characterised as “sperm-spattered”: come again?

Star ratings (out of five)
An Enemy of the People ★★★★
King Lear ★★★★
Double Feature ★★