At first glance, the Royal National Theatre’s blunt, powerful production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” under the direction of Trevor Nunn, is all bigness. There are the playwright’s big ideas about the individual against society, a massive, wonderful set by John Napier, and a cast of more than two dozen actors who riot, not once but twice onstage. What proves mesmerizing, however, is a very intimate drama of two brothers locked in one of their many power struggles. It is that simple, elemental conflict that grabs and holds our attention for three hours.
When first seen, the good Dr. Tomas Stockmann (Ian McKellen) is all giddiness, more than eager to tell his brother — who just happens to be the mayor — the awful truth that he has discovered: The town’s new spa is “a sink of disease, the baths are poisoned.” No matter that the project is bringing unprecedented prosperity to the area; this is the public good he’s talking about here.
As played by Stephen Moore, Mayor Stockmann is appropriately horrified and, at turns, utterly dismissive of the idea and his brother — especially his brother.
No one can hate the way a brother hates, especially one who’s spent a lifetime taking the backseat. Whenever McKellen meets Moore, they are soon at it, locked in physical combat, Ibsen’s dialogue reduced to gibberish. These are brats in men’s clothing, condemned to roles that have had them screaming like children from before they can remember.
Ibsen doesn’t mess around in “An Enemy of the People,” which he wrote in 1882. He tells us flat out “The majority is never right”and “The strongest man in the world is the one who stands alone.”
What’s extraordinary about the work of Nunn, McKellen and translator Christopher Hampton here is that they also question Dr. Stockmann’s motives. Idealism no longer escapes Ibsen’s sharp hatchet. In the 1950 Arthur Miller translation, the doctor is a kind of righteous John Proctor, rewarded by the knowledge that he is right about the spa and everything else in life.
In Hampton’s version, Stockmann starts at that point and then promptly descends into a crusade of spite and ego and revenge. “I’m going to pay him back!” he says of his brother. Without that sibling rivalry, would the doctor be a rebel with a cause?
In a way, the spa may simply be a convenient excuse for the two brothers to fight it out on a grand stage one last time.
As effective as McKellen is playing opposite Moore — a witty actor who is more than up to meeting his co-star’s challenge — he’s even better in the play’s big rabble-rousing climax, which has him lecturing the whole town. (Anyone who has seen McKellen’s self-congratulatory one-man show “A Knight Out,” about his being an “out” gay actor, knows how expert he is at grandstanding.)
Less wonderful are some of McKellen’s quieter moments, especially those opposite his wife, Katrine, played by Charlotte Cornwell, who in a minor miracle of acting makes flesh and blood of an absurdly underwritten role. Occasionally, McKellen sets up an odd distance between himself and the character, as though he were comment-ing on Stockmann’s naivete rather than playing it. Isabel Pollen as his daughter, Petra, also seems uncomfortable with the weight of unbridled virtue.
Members of the mob — or the majority, as they’re called here — definitely make for the evening’s most consistently effective performances. Besides Moore, there’s Pip Donaghy’s cowardly printer and Ralph Nossek’s Morten Kiil, the wealthy father-in-law whose tannery is the town’s major polluter. Ibsen knew how to turn a plot, and the well-named Kiil makes an offer the doctor can’t refuse. Of course, he does, and is done in by that refusal.
In arguably the play’s most difficult role, Paul Higgins as the editor Hovstad makes perfect sense of his mercurial flip-flop from supporter to detractor. He also resists playing up Ibsen’s more delicious lines about the “liberal press.” Here is an actor who’s a master of understatement.
On opening night, connoisseurs of turntable scenery dutifully applauded Napier’s massive set as it revolved to expose a bustling little town on the eve of self-destruction. Napier says it all here: a weather vane atop the water tower that is carrying poison to the populace below. Early on, the villain-victim mayor complains of gastric problems. John Bright’s costumes, with no relief of color, show that he and everybody else in town are already carriers of death.
A minor complaint is the unfortunate amplification, which seems to come and go depending on where the actors are onstage. Maybe in future performances it can just go away completely.