“Sometimes there are undeniable truths. And you have to deal with them.”
Truth, politics, the media and misogyny command the stage of Belvoir upstairs in the timely rendition of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play Enemy of the People.
Urban Village spoke to prominent Melbourne playwright Melissa Reeves about what this century old work means for a contemporary audience. As it turns out, the truth is a tricky beast in every age.
Ibsen’s Enemy of the People is a story of power and self-interest. The Norwegian playwright wrote it as a response to a previous play, Ghosts, which tackled the hypocrisy of Victorian morality. Now over one hundred years later Reeves, in collaboration with the Belvoir and cast, has produced her rendition set in a rural Australian town.
Dr Stockman, played by Kate Mulvany, discovers one day that the water from the spa, for which the town is famed, is toxic. To her horror, when the truth is revealed the townspeople refuse to believe there’s a problem.
“Dr Stockman is almost like a Cassandra, speaking all these truths that people don’t want to hear,” said Reeves. “In our society, it’s not that a truth is revealed and everyone says, ‘oh, that’s terrible.’ It’s that we already know the truths and we’ve worked out a way of living with them and not necessarily challenging them.”
Reeves turned to popular philosophers in Ibsen’s time such as Nietzsche when writing her adaptation, as well as current philosophers, to inform the creative shifts in social and political themes. The most notable shift in Reeves’s rendition is casting Dr Stockman as a female; a role traditionally played by a male.
“It just seemed like a great way to go,” said Reeves. “Having the play re-centred around a woman, especially right at this moment, seemed really powerful. There’s that huge added layer there, of barriers and blame for women. When women disagree with the status quo, the calumny on their heads is all the more.”
“By rewriting Dr Stockman as a woman, Melissa Reeves has added yet another deliciously complex narrative of truth telling,” said play director Anne-Louise Sparks.
“The contaminated water at the local spa resort could be an allegory for any one of our current human crises: the refugees permanently detained on Nauru, Indigenous deaths in custody, climate change,” said Sparks. “We’ve seen the images, heard the stories, followed the human consequences. Our leaders do nothing but appeal to our most basic selfish interests. And so we do nothing.”
In Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, male Dr Stockman resolves: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone,” whereas Reeves’s female Dr Stockman finds strength in the women around her, and the hope of the play lies ultimately in human connection.
“I don’t think we’re providing any great answers, and in some ways it’s quite a bleak story,” said Reeves. “But I think through exploring these issues in a fabulous public arena like the Belvoir theatre, the audience can go away and think about our take on it. I think it’s really important for politics to be at the heart of theatre.”
Enemy of the People is a comedy with a fierce political heart. The show opened on October 7 and will continue at the Belvoir until November 4. Head to the Belvoir website for more information and tickets.