REVIEW: An Enemy of the People, Chichester Festival Theatre, until May 21.

How can telling the truth go quite so disastrously wrong?

Alfie Scott, Hugh Bonneville and Jack Taylor in Chichester Festival Theatre's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Alfie Scott, Hugh Bonneville and Jack Taylor in Chichester Festival Theatre's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Director Howard Davies dissects it all quite brilliantly in his superb revival of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

Whether or the not the piece was the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s Jaws nearly a century later, Davies shows it’s a play which has lost none of its bite, thanks largely to an outstanding central performance from Hugh Bonneville as the infuriating Dr Stockmann.

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Bonneville commands the stage as surely as he has commanded our screens in recent years, but does so with a naturalness which is the hallmark of our finest actors – and that’s why he makes Stockmann spark to life quite so tellingly.

Chief Medical Officer of the Bath, Stockmann thinks he’s the saviour of the people when he discovers the cherished waters are foully polluted and consequently dangerous. The play shows just how wrongly you can get things right.

Bonneville delivers us a Stockmann who is charismatic and brilliant, but also naïve, reckless, self-satisfied, smug and self-congratulatory, a man driven as much by petty jealousies as he is by idealism, a man who poisons his own truth as surely as the bacteria poison the waters – and yet still he is baffled at the way pretty much everyone turns against him.

William Gaminara is similarly excellent as his brother, the mayor. Fraternal rivalry and competitiveness spill over into open warfare when the mayor points out Stockmann’s discovery will kill the town economically. Stockmann’s response is indignation and derision.

Equally impressive is Abigail Cruttenden as Stockmann’s sorely-tried but supportive wife. Special mention too to youngsters Alfie Scott (14) and Jack Taylor (12) who convince as Stockmann’s sons. Alice Orr-Ewing is his unswervingly devoted daughter.

Put it all together, and it is a wonderful start to the season, delivered on a succession of superbly-detailed sets; strikingly imaginative use is also made of the auditorium itself for the public-meeting scene.

But really the night is Bonneville’s as the man who goes it alone, is absolutely right but somehow manages to make a vice of virtue and alienate all but those closest to him. We’ve waited two decades to see Bonneville back on the CFT stage; the wait has been worth it on a night of endless resonances.

The play’s portrayal of the local newspaper is bizarre and implausible, but in every other respect the play rings true with all sorts of echoes of the stories which still fill our media on a daily basis even now.

Phil Hewitt

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