After the worldwide mega-hit that was Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville – or Lord Grantham, as he was known to millions – is out to prove that he still has theatre chops. And what could be better than to do it in a play by Ibsen, that meaty master of the personal and the political? An Enemy of the People (1882) is one of Ibsen’s most overtly political works, offering a brutal examination of the responsibilities of citizenship and the corruption of power, via a small but booming spa town that is suddenly informed that its money-making waters are dangerously infected.
The Dowager Duchess can rest easy. Bonneville is very good in the role of Dr Tomas Stockmann, the chief medical officer to the baths that have transformed the town’s fortunes. Fans of Downton will know the score: He’s all rumpled decency, with sudden flashes of anger that seem to boil up from nowhere. Stockmann, something of a naïve and impetuous soul, expects to be hailed when he discovers the fatal pollution and is bewildered to find himself at the centre of a growing storm of opprobrium. It got me wondering, how many of the thousand-strong audience each evening are unequivocally on the side of Stockmann and his all-out truth-telling, and how many of us have secretly had our morality somewhat curdled by the exigencies of the 21st-century world?
The director is Howard Davies, which usually means wonderful things given that he is the unrivalled master of ensemble naturalism. His production of Maugham’s For Services Rendered at Chichester was one of last year’s highlights. However, here the magic is sadly diluted, as he doesn’t manage to shape everybody else into a cohort of fully rounded characters, rather than dogged viewpoints plus a quietly supportive wife (Abigail Cruttenden). Stockmann, you see, is alone in his commitment to veracity. His brother the mayor (William Gaminara, underwhelming) isn’t for it at all, and although it initially looks as though the liberal press, in the shape of newspaper editor Hovstad (Adam James, impressively fiery) might do the right thing, it’s a short-lived hope.
It’s very much the fashion at the moment for theatres to put some sort of "community ensemble" into their productions. One duly crops up here, as the crowd of angry citizens who denounce Stockmann – and send him off on a spree of misanthropic abuse – at the climactic town meeting. While there are certainly lots of people, we never for a minute fear that the meeting might spin dangerously, violently out of control on a tidal wide of public opinion. Instead everyone stands diligently and decorously on their appointed mark. It put me in mind of a very well-choreographed school play.
The recent landmark for this play is the 1997 production at the National Theatre starring an impassioned Ian McKellen. That performance blazed – and therefore inflamed us – with civic crusading. Here I kept wanting to whisper to Stockmann, "Wouldn’t it be better to run this past the shareholders in private first?" And I’m certain that’s not simply due to the passage of 19 years.