An Enemy of the People

by Henrik Ibsen
translated and adapted by Nelson Chia
Nine Years Theatre
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2014: Art & the People
(organised and curated by TNS)
Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

It’s never easy speaking up against the majority, even if one knows it’s for the greater good. The most well-meaning person can easily be regarded as a deviant, inviting widespread social condemnation. Ibsen’s 1882 classic is given a fresh retelling in this crisp, elegant Mandarin staging helmed by Nelson Chia, Artistic Director of Nine Years Theatre.

Chia has done impressive work adapting Western classics such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Twelve Angry Men for the Mandarin stage and does a commendable job of distilling Ibsen’s text, working with a ensemble cast of just five actors. While a few of the original characters have been removed, some of the actors double up as more than one character and the language has been made slightly less formal, the nub of the play remains the same. I was slightly less convinced by the approach of having an actor spell out the stage directions to the audience at the beginning of each scene; this feels too deliberate and could have been conveyed purely through the acting.

Photo Credit: The Pond Photography

Rei Poh does a good job anchoring the play as Thomas Stockmann, a respected doctor who decides to publish a report in the local paper based on his findings that the water in their town’s newly opened public baths are contaminated due to a local tannery. Despite the obvious tourist revenue that the baths would bring to the town, Stockmann is adamant about informing the public of this contamination and how it would have adverse health consequences. This leads to severe resistance from the power-that-be, resulting in his public ostracism and him being denounced as an enemy of the people

There is terrific support by Hang Qian Chou as Stockmann’s wily brother and the town mayor who is determined to thwart Stockmann’s plan to reveal his findings and Neo Hai Bin as the affable editor of the local paper who later turns against Stockmann when he believes that the revelation would wreak havoc for the town. Mia Chee and Jean Toh also shine as Stockmann’s wife and daughter respectively. Chee, in particular, turns in a quietly affecting portrait of the faithful spouse who is increasingly concerned over the repercussions of her husband’s behaviour.

Photo Credit: The Pond Photography

Much of the success of this production lies in Chia’s conscious decision to clothe the play in a clean aesthetic and to resist dramatic flourishes. The closing tableaux for each scene are rounded out with subtlety and the emotions of the characters are all the richer for it. Omitting an intermission also gives the narrative momentum and the simple scene changes performed in full view of the audience regulate the pace without compromising the dramatic intensity.

After more than a century, Ibsen’s themes remain fresh and relevant. The idea of an individual speaking his mind against a ruling majority and being roundly castigated is something that would resonate with any Singaporean and seeing these issues play out in Chinese gives them a far greater urgency than a standard English translation would have achieved. It is here that Nine Years Theatre have truly excelled: taking well-known theatre classics and bringing them that much closer to home. One certainly looks forward to seeing more well-known plays being given a local spin by this ambitious and dedicated company.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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