by Lynn on September 25, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Florian Borchmeyer
English translation by Maria Milisavljevic
Directed by Richard Rose
Designed by Michelle Tracey
Lighting by Jason Hand
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Starring: Tom Barnett
Joe Cobden
Matthew Edison
Brandon McGibbon
Richard McMillan
Tamara Podemski
Rick Roberts

A gripping, muscular production of Ibsen’s masterpiece, in an adaptation that is as timely as it is unsettling.

The Story. Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the medical officer for his spa town. His brother Peter is a smooth-talking politician who runs the Spa Corporation, among other things. Peter got his brother the job as medical officer.

Recently Thomas had a hunch about the water in the town not being safe. Many tourists became sick when they visited the spa. Thomas had tests done. The tests revealed that the water was poisoned from toxic waste and chemicals coming from sources flowing down into the town. Thomas’s options seem pretty clear to him. He will reveal his findings in various articles in the local newspaper and make sweeping recommendations to clean up the water and relay the pipes. He envisions that the townspeople will hail him as a hero.

His savvy brother Peter doesn’t agree. Peter doesn’t want Thomas to say anything. The spa is the town’s only money-making industry and the news will ruin it. The spa will have to be closed for at least two years and the cleanup and relaying of pipes etc. will cost millions of dollars. The town can’t afford it but they are liable. Taxes will have to be raised to pay for it. Peter paints a pretty convincing, dire picture. Thomas will have none of it. He demands a town hall meeting with the town to present his case and is vilified. He fights back by arguing that the majority is never right and riffs on the many and various things that are poisoning his town and the water is the least of it.

It’s a story of truth vs. dishonesty for ones own gain. It’s about moral bankruptcy, crooked politicians, and working to change the world by standing up alone and saying “no.”

The Production. Michelle Tracey’s set is composed of walls that are blackboards with drawings, phrases and intriguing sayings in chalk. “The eyes of the world are watching,” is one such saying. Prophetic when you consider the story. The furniture is ultra-modern: there is a black sofa with a matching black chair; musical recording equipment covers one table; laptop computers are used at the newspaper and for composing music.

As the story progresses, the set is gradually cleared away; the walls are covered in white-wash (symbolism there?) and Thomas and his wife Katharina are left on the ground wondering what to do next.

Thomas Stockmann and Katharina (a teacher) are members of a rock band in which the other members are Hovstad, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper for which Thomas will write the articles, and Billing, who also writes for the newspaper. The band usually rehearses in Thomas’s house. This is a tight group of friends who initially support each other, until their loyalty is tested.

The songs the band sings are about change. In an interesting, telling moment Billing plays his electric guitar loudly, lost in ‘the zone’, totally oblivious of anything around him, especially Thomas and Katharina’s crying baby in the next room—whom Katharina is trying to calm.

Director Richard Rose has done a terrific job in realizing the many layers of this complex yet clearly stated play. He nicely establishes the busy, sometimes frenzied lives of Thomas, Katharina, Hovstad and Billing. They play, eat and practice together—and always seem to be in Thomas’s house for one reason or other. Rose drives the ever quickening pace, like a torrent of gushing water, to its unsettling conclusion.

As Thomas, Joe Cobden is a schlumpy man, perhaps an unlikely looking medical officer but his conviction is anything but messy. Cobden creates a boyish, innocent portrayal of Thomas, who then emerges as a fierce, angry man fighting for the town’s and his very existence.

As Peter, Rick Roberts looks the very picture of a smooth, manipulative politician. He knows how to manoeuvre an argument and certainly when it’s with his less crafty brother, Thomas. The scenes between the brothers slowly reveals the frustration and fury they have for each other; the contempt for the other’s ideals and philosophy. As Hovstad, Matthew Edison is a charmer who knows how to play both sides of a story. He encourages Thomas to reveal his story in the paper, but also knows how to hold back when his own interests will be damaged.

The town hall in which Thomas tries to present his case is high-jacked by his savvy brother who knows how to manipulate a meeting to his own ends. Then a wonderful things happens. The lights in the theatre are turned on to reveal the audience. Peter then directs his comments to them. This being opening night, some folks are game and offer comment to Peter’s (Rick Roberts) double speak. Hovstad (Matthew Edison) and Billing (Brandon McGibbon) also get into the discussion. It’s to their credit that they can thrust and parry as their characters would as if that audience was the townsfolk. That town hall meeting beautifully blurred the lines between theatre and life. Loved that. An interesting question was if anyone in the town got sick. There is no reference to that. Odd. There is also a single scene in which Katharina and Hovstad look like they might be romantically involved, which seems to come from nowhere. That’s a quibble.

Comment. Ibsen wrote this astonishing play in 1882. All any Ontarian need say to realize how art imitates life is “Walkerton”—a town where the water supply was poisoned and the politicians and town leaders tried to cover it up. Unfortunately one gets the sense the play will never be dated as long as there is greed, self-interest and a noble person standing up saying, “no.” Richard Rose and his wonderful cast have created a thrilling production. Important. Compelling. Essential.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre from an adaptation originally produced by the Schaubühne (Berlin)

Opened: September 24, 2014
Closes: Oct. 26, 2014.
Cast: 7; 6 men, 1 woman
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes. (No intermission)

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Brian Stein September 29, 2014 at 12:41 am

Ken and I saw the play on Sunday afternoon. I was impelled to see it by Kelly’s review. I didn’t see The Star review till I got home. Not sure what Richard was thinking. That said, like Richard, I hated The Book of Mormon which I saw on Saturday. Strange bedfellows, no? Breaking the fast with Larry on Saturday night. Not sure he fasts but I do. Have a good new year and an easy fast if you do that.