Generations later, ‘An Enemy of the People’ remains a timely piece of political theater

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There are few renditions of “An Enemy of the People,” Henrik Ibsen’s revered political drama from 1882, that begin with a soft, acoustic version of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. In Schaubühne’s reimagination of the classic piece, however, not only “Crazy,” but “These Days” and “Wonderwall” were on the setlist as well.

“An Enemy of the People” was brought to Berkeley by Schaubühne, an innovative theatrical group out of Berlin, Germany. In both its original format and in the version revised by Florian Borchmeyer for Schaubühne, “An Enemy of the People” tells the story of the fall of Dr. Stockmann (Christoph Gawenda) after he discovers that the water source for his town’s esteemed health spas has been contaminated. The spa has been poisoning tourists, but the end of it means the end of the town as those at the top know it, with the looming threat of huge repair costs and a shutdown of the profitable health spas.

The show, told primarily in German with English supertitles lofted above the stage, is at its core an intensely political show critiquing government corruption and the media’s compliance. The show was originally written in the 19th century in Norwegian and was launched into the 21st century political discourse with talk of “alternative facts” and “fake news” being used to discredit Stockmann all along the way.

Everything about the show, from the costuming to the furniture to the song choice, gave it a distinctly modern feel. Renato Schuch, Moritz Gottwald, Eva Mechback and Gawenda worked so effectively in the first act as a stellar band that the eventual collapse of those connections was all the more devastating because it meant the end of the David Bowie covers.

As much of a character as those in the show, the set transformed throughout the performance. It began in a modern apartment with Basquiat-esque chalk drawings on the huge, towering, black walls. At one point, an actor simply drew a radio on the wall when the set piece was needed.

Later in the show, before Stockmann’s town hall meeting, the actors all messily painted the walls white with long paint rollers, offering Stockmann a somewhat dystopian, sterile, white background in front of which to deliver his speech. Later, the walls became splattered with bursts of violent yellow as Stockmann was officially turned against by not only the press and the government, but the town as well.

During the final few scenes of the show, the actors opened the discussion of free speech and the value of democracy to the audience, asking them to contribute and pass around the microphone. One woman spoke of Flint, Michigan, another of the limits of representational democracy. Against each comment, Aslaksen (David Ruland), the newspaper’s printer, pushed back, twisting the facts and gaslighting the audience.

“You are trying to silence him, and we’ve had enough of people like you, so shut up and sit down,” one man said, pointing a finger up at Aslaksen.

“Then you drink the damn water,” another shouted against Aslaksen’s insistence that the water was both clean and fixable.

During the Beijing performance of this show just a month ago, this section of the play prompted shouted insults against the government and was met with a complete shutdown of the show and an end of that piece of the tour. In Berkeley, however, a call for government transparency and revolution was met with snaps and cheers from the audience.

There is something uniquely devastating about a show written hundreds of years ago about the mores of society remaining so relevant across cultures and centuries. “An Enemy of the People” was just such a show. Even across languages, Schaubühne effectively updated the show to make it viscerally relevant to today’s society.

Kate Tinney covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.