An Enemy of the People lets audience decide who is right

Ibsen’s social critiques still relevant to Canadian politics today

Image of Laura Condlln pushing Rick Roberts in an act from the play "An Enemy of the People", at the Tarragon Theatre

An Enemy of the People, Tarragon Theatre | Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

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On the eve of federal elections Tarragon Theatre brought back last year’s noted play An Enemy of the People.

Written by a Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1882, the play tells a story of Dr. Thomas Stockman who discovers water at his town’s baths has been contaminated. However, going public turns out to be more complex than he expected.

Political and interpersonal twists  intensify when Dr. Thomas Stockman is turned into Dr. Thomasina Stockman, played by the brilliant Laura Condlln.

This change reveals how differently the story is interpreted if the main character is a woman. Thomasina’s older brother, a local politician personally interested in keeping her discovery secret, yells that she is a reckless troublemaker who denies authority.

“You are not entitled to any opinion as an employee,” he shouts. “I give you orders and you obey!”.

A woman’s attempt to speak up faces a man’s power and physical strength.

“Who cares if he is powerful? I am right,” Thomasina says to her sister. “Who cares you are right, if he is powerful?” she replies.

Thomasina’s passionate speech on financial crisis, the economy and society, consciously or unconsciously, uncovers the typical social norms: men are emotionally cool and clear-headed as opposed to hysterical and emotional women.

“You shouldn’t have got involved in this,” says one of the characters, summarising the overall attitudes towards courageous women in society.

The debates at the town hall got the audience involved in the play. The “town citizens” were asked to discuss who is right: Dr. Stockman or “the democratic majority.”

With federal elections looming, certain jokes were inevitable. “Do you want to lose the economy?”asks Stockman’s politician brother Peter.

“Let’s wait until Monday!” was one reply from the audience.

““You can’t help to play it differently,” said Tom Barnett, who plays the town’s newspaper’s publisher, on Thomas becoming Thomasina. “You know it’s going to change the equation, but you don’t know how.”

Condlln said that from her perspective Dr. Stockman “goes off on a very big picture that the only thing worth doing is getting rid of civilisation because it’s dying anyway.”

Rick Roberts, who plays Peter Stockman, said the play is genderless and agreed with the criticism of society in it. “There are problems with democracy, economy and family, but there are no solutions. It really is a conversation. And the problem with Stephen Harper is saying ‘No conversation.’ ”

Summarising the play Podemski said, “as much as you want to stand on your principles, we all still have to live, we have families.”

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An Enemy of the People lets audience decide who is right