Third day, third totally different kind of theatre. The smallest auditorium yet and the smallest stage; an audience somewhere between those at the DT and the Volksbuehne. And stylistically, easily the most naturalistic approach to acting. No wonder Ostermeier’s productions travel so well.

After just a few days in Berlin, what’s already obvious to me is that the notion that there is such a thing as “Regietheater” is at best an oversimplification, as is the idea that there is one even vaguely unified German theatrical tradition. If there is such a unifying element, it may be a sense of anything goes: that theatre can and has to come in many different guises, and that no element in the process — not the text, not the author, not the director, not the actors, not the audience — necessarily takes priority over the others, even if in any one specific production, such a priority may in fact be asserted. If reviews are anything to go on, the general expectation still seems to be that theatre needs to surprise, to challenge, to go places it hasn’t gone before, in some sense to innovate. It mustn’t stand still, it mustn’t be predictable, it mustn’t be stale. Whether theatre makers feel the same way I still have to discover — I suspect the picture is probably rather more complicated there.

So: Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People, then. By Anglophone mainstream standards, this certainly looks like a fairly radical treatment of Ibsen’s play: the set is as hipster as the costumes; the opening dinner party is now a band rehearsal; the text has been worked over to sound contemporary, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (Stockmann’s rant in Act 4 is now a long excerpt from The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection); there is a participatory interlude; the ending of the play is totally changed — it’s now considerably more disillusioned, even cynical, than in Ibsen’s original, but also rather less creepy. But in the context of what is happening on other Berlin stages, this is a fairly conventional production (the trailer feels much more radical than the show itself). Sure, characterization is somewhat theatrical, somewhat larger than life, but not much — and there is almost no trace of a metatheatrical investment. I don’t mean this to be an evaluative assessment: on its own terms, Ostermeier’s is a captivating show. In particular, Ingo Huelsmann’s councillor (in Ibsen’s original, the mayor) and David Ruland’s Aslaksen, the newspaper publisher and head of the local property owners’ association, are chillingly pitch-perfect — not so much caricatures as brutally accurate representations of real-life types that in their very accuracy become grotesque figures.

Interestingly, although the production very ostentatiously acknowledges the audience’s presence when Stockmann, before his speech in Act 4, calls for the house lights to be turned on, and even more when he and his antagonists stage a debate about his ideas with the audience, Ostermeier does not in those moments or elsewhere acknowledge that we are watching a play. Stefan Stern remains in character as Stockmann during the debate, as do the other actors — and the audience easily went along with the fiction, attacking Ruland for what Aslaksen had said and Huelsmann for what the councillor had done. Although the moment was participatory, then, it wasn’t really designed to complicate the theatrical situation; if anything, it reaffirmed the efficacy of the fiction.

I found this surprising, but probably shouldn’t have (although I must say that Ostermeier’s Hamlet hadn’t really prepared me for this approach — should he in fact be a director who responds to what he sees as the dramaturgical imperatives inherent in his texts?). Ostermeier, after all, has been an outspoken advocate of theatrical realism, especially in discussing his approach to Ibsen. He has described himself as “obsessed with sociological observation of human behaviour in daily life,” and expressed his delight at how much room Ibsen gives a director to “show how a body moves in space, how a body approaches another, how people shake hands, talk to each other while not watching each other, how they try to perform their happy life and so on;” Ibsen’s plays provide him with a “laboratory” in which he can put “the appearances of daily life” under close observation. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though the slippage between “bodies” and “people” in Ostermeier’s account strikes me as significant: actors have bodies, which they can use to all sorts of ends; but when they move them a certain way, they become people. There’s a switch here from presentation to representation that I’m sure Ostermeier is quite aware of, but which he also elides. For theatre to become a sociological laboratory, after all, we first need to believe, up to a point, that the bodies on stage are the bodies of the people (the social agents) that the actors are playing. In a sense, then, illusion is a necessary precondition for the realist examination of contemporary society Ostermeier is after.

Which is why, as thrilling as this Enemy of the People was at times, and as engaging as I found the performances, the turn to the audience in Act 4 ultimately didn’t quite work for me, precisely because it changed Ibsen’s play in way that’s hard to reconcile with what comes after — in a way that made the illusion of reality difficult to sustain. In the original, Stockmann delivers an elitist, anti-democratic rant in Act 4, with the result that the townspeople turn on him, violently. They tear his clothes and they smash his windows. In Ostermeier’s production, we are the people. And although many of us clearly took issue with some of what Stockmann, channeling the Invisible Committee, was saying, a majority of us (as was evident from the crowd’s reactions) agreed with him in spirit. Clearly no-one was going to storm the stage and tackle him in outrage. There was no mob howling “Enemy of the people” as Stockmann leaves the stage.  And thus the attack on him was necessarily left entirely to his establishment antagonists — the weaselly journalists and the slimy politicians — who got to pelt him with paint balloons before they engineer his financial and social ruin.

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The problem with the entire move, then, with including us in the action of the play, is that within the realist frame of the production, the widespread outrage the play requires never comes. It’s Stockmann against the establishment from beginning to end, so that the one-man-on-his-own battle cry that wraps up Ibsen’s play has nothing to do with the reality Ostermeier stages. For that to happen, the text would have needed to be more, not less offensive, than the original. Sure, Stockmann ranted about the liberal majority: us, in other words. But it is, after all, a hallmark of all good left-leaning liberals to feel endless remorse at never following through on whatever revolutionary impulses they may once have had, so that it’s easy to applaud, self-loathingly, whenever we’re being castigated as enablers of the system. The show made it far too easy for us to remain on Stockmann’s side, to continue to despise his opponents, and thus made it almost impossible for the situation after the speech to feel anything but contrived: within the realist set-up of Ostermeier’s production, what happens after Stockmann’s rant just didn’t feel realistic enough.

Then again, Ostermeier does perhaps turn the tables on us in the end. Whereas in Ibsen’s version, Stockmann remains defiant, and creepily so, here, the play finishes with the image of him and his wife sitting on their sofa, clutching the stack of stocks his father-in-law has handed him, contemplating whether they should give up their high ideals for enormous financial gain — and then the lights snap off. Whatever this character is, ultimately conformist or ultimately crushed by the system, he is not Ibsen’s megalomaniac. And perhaps that is Ostermeier’s point: that we may wish for someone who delivers grand, caustic revolutionary speeches, but that we can’t rely on figures like that to effect change; that as long as we simply cheer them on while remaining comfortable in our seats, nothing will happen; that we can’t delegate responsibility — and that if we do, our delegates are as likely as not to sell out before the day is through. If that’s what the end of the play suggests, the audience’s integration into the show works, I think, in the sense that it demonstrates that unlike Ibsen’s people, we’re not going to run riot, because we have others to do that for us. Letting an Invisible Committee, or a Thomas Stockmann, do the talking for us is not subversive or radical or even mildly reformist at all. I wonder what’s been the most ferocious audience reaction they’ve had. If I’ve properly understood Ostermeier’s point, I suppose we should get out of our seats and take over from Stockmann. Has anyone done that? Theatrically, it would probably mean the end of the play. Politically — I have no idea.

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