Revamped Brit theater reopens with hit 'Enemy'

Audiences flocking to “An Enemy of the People,” the inaugural production at reopened regional theater the Sheffield Crucible are discovering that “Jaws” wasn’t the first drama to find something fishy in the water supply.

Ibsen’s 1882 thriller about corruption and local politics centers on Stockmann (Antony Sher), who discovers the water in the new spa is infested with poisonous bacteria. But his public-spirited attempt to blow the whistle hits scary opposition from those with vested interests in the town’s prosperity.

For all the fierceness of its timely debates on public vs. private morality and the role of the press, the play is a bold drama teeming with life, as evidenced by the climactic public scene staged by recently appointed a.d. Daniel Evans with a cast of 60.

The play’s potential as a statement of intent has been seized upon before. In 1997, Trevor Nunn used the Ibsen drama to open his five-year tenure as a.d. of the National Theater. But where that production didn’t escape charges of grandiosity (its overuse of a revolver had naysayers labeling it “Enemy, the Musical”) Evans’ production has power without the bombast.

The 980-seat Crucible needs a hit for the simple reason that it has been dark for two years undergoing a £15.3 million ($22.9 million) refit that came in on time and on budget. Good news, then, that in addition to being a critical hit, the show is doing the business.

“We’ve still got three weeks to go in an almost six-week run, and we’ve already hit 65% of capacity and easily exceeded our target,” says the ebullient Evans.

The new a.d. is finalizing a still-under-wraps 2010-11 slate that will include a major musical at Christmas, a season devoted to a leading British playwright, and Evans own production of “Hamlet” starring John Simm.

“Other theaters favor a more experimental approach — rethinking plays for found spaces and so forth,” says Evans. “I want to do that possibly old-fashioned thing of producing great plays that are well-directed, well-designed and acted, but that speak to us now.”

Until his appointment 10 months ago, Evans was known almost exclusively as an actor. He has two Oliviers and was Tony-nominated for his role in “Sunday in the Park With George,” but had only helmed three shows. Yet one of his predecessors at the Crucible was another ex-actor with similarly limited directing experience when he took on the job: Michael Grandage.

Ibsen, meanwhile, is also back in the West End courtesy of another actor-turned-director. However, in addition to staging the great sins-of-the-father drama, “Ghosts,” Iain Glen is also playing Pastor Manders, one of the leading roles.

Glen, alas, turns the Pastor into a totally self-satisfied, blinkered zealot, an exaggerated choice that leaves nothing to the imagination and destroys the tension between the characters that makes the play so potentially engrossing. He also encourages equally extreme, overly signposted performances from the rest of his cast. The unengaging result topples from tragedy into melodrama.

That criticism cannot be hurled at the Almeida Theater’s new “Measure for Measure.” Michael Attenborough’s thoughtful if unsexy production boasts a chilly Ben Miles as the willful Duke, a dynamic performance a million miles away from his sweetly feckless vet in “The Norman Conquests.”

Miles is so powerful he almost dwarfs the plangent Anna Maxwell Martin as Isabella and Rory Kinnear as Angelo. The fevered, buttoned-down intensity of the latter’s playing is an exciting foretaste of his Hamlet for director Nicholas Hytner in the fall.

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