One of contemporary German theatre’s most distinctive companies returns to Melbourne Festival for the second year running, with a new take on Henrik Ibsen’s classic treatment of power, money and corruption
A small German town is making a name for itself as a spa resort. The money is rolling in, but all is not well. Local resident, Dr Stockman, has discovered that the water of the spas is poisonous. It's news that nobody in town wants to hear, and Stockman soon finds himself disowned and defamed by the angry townsfolk, from the mayor right through to members of his own family.
Ostermeier, who is well-known for his thoughtful adaptations of the Norwegian master, makes the interesting observation that Ibsen frequently writes about characters under economic pressure. In An Enemy of the People, we see the effect this distorting pressure can have on an entire town, where survival has come to depend on selling toxic water. In this context, the conflict between truth and lies, or rather truth and power, has an eerily contemporary resonance, one pointing to systemic economic contradictions.
Time Out spoke with Ostermeier ahead of his company's second visit to Melbourne in just two years for the Melbourne Festival.
Thomas, as a director you regularly come back to Ibsen's work - at least once every two years - perhaps you could start by outlining the ways in which Ibsen satisfies or attracts you as an artist?
It is his continuing social and political relevance. He is describing a nineteenth-century bourgeois society where the economy is interfering in human relationships, and trying to talk about how this might damage relationships, damage behaviour, or even love, or the souls of the people. He's the first to have written about this and that's why I find him so fascinating, because this is also true of what we are living through, maybe even more so.
Tell me about the process of adaptation, of making it contemporary?
We made some pretty tough decisions. You could say that, I don't know, 70% of the text is rewritten. We tried to stick to the core of the plot, but some of the conflicts, the issues raised by the characters, are more contemporary. We also planted a whole speech, one which you can find on the internet, by the Invisible Committee, from The Coming Insurrection. This is a text written by a collective of anarchistic revolutionaries in France and it's a precise description of society today, from my point of view. And this speech will take, like, ten or fifteen minutes, and it's completely contemporary, it's from 2007.
So to me it's pretty obvious what is contemporary about the text. What has more power? Does politics have more power? Or does economics have more power? Who rules society? These are the questions in the play and very crucial questions, I feel, for today.
I understand many of the plot details remain the same, so you still have the toxic water making tourists at the spa ill. Can I ask why you retain those nineteenth-century details, even as you seek these more contemporary economic resonances? Why not push the play even further and face the economic crisis more directly? Why talk about toxic water when you could be talking about toxic debt, for example? What was it you wanted to hold onto in those details?
Well, a play like this usually has several levels to it, which provide a director, on one level, with a relationship between characters, that is, the plot. That's why I'm not writing a completely new play. What it provides me with are the characters, the relations. The dramatic tension in this play is already pretty strong.
And of course, I have to admit, it's a little bit like the Trojan Horse. If you put a new play on the program, you will have difficulties attracting a bigger audience. If you put an Ibsen play on, or a writer who everybody knows, then everybody comes and thinks they're going to see Ibsen, and in the end they hear, hopefully, something about us today.
But if the attempt there is to shock the middle and upper middle classes, those who attend festivals like Avignon and here the Melbourne Festival—
No, no, I'm not about trying to shock people at all. It's about asking questions, and trying to ask them pretty seriously. I don't want to shock anybody with what the play is about, and I think what the play is about is shocking enough if you get it right, telling the story as it is written.
Perhaps you can expand on what might make the story shocking?
Ok, truth has no chance in a society that is driven by economical circumstances. This truth – about diseased water – is sacrificed to economic growth and economic interests. This is a shocking truth. If you successfully tell this story in a convincing way, this might be a shock.
But there's also another shock because, maybe, if all this is right, it will prompt the audience to ask, "Where do I stand as a person?" That is, bourgeois members of the audience, or any other members of the audience – students, young people, the occupy movement all around the world – where do we stand in our analysis of what's going on at the moment, politically? And what kind of ideas do we have about how to change it? Are our ideas of change romantic? And I would say they are.
I think a lot of political movements are driven by this NGO spirit of, ok, so there's a fucked up system, but we can help people, we can do environmental work, we can do social work, we can provide medicines to troubled regions of the world, and so on and so on. This is important, but it is very romantic to think that this really helps to change the world like it has to be changed in order that we will not be one of the last generations living on this planet.
This morning I read—
Haha, you don't sound convinced.
Ha, no, no, I don't meant to. I only wonder if it's possible to incite that level of political consciousness in the audience when you have a play, and a playwright, who are essentially manifestations of the kind of liberal humanism you're describing, and which you say perpetuates the current economic system.
True, true, that's true–
And even if one is willing, in the audience, maybe the platform, the traditional theatre space, forbids that kind of level of engagement.
Why do you think that?
I don't know. But maybe, and I use this example because I know it's something you try to confront in this production, but maybe there is this expectation of passivity in the audience. Perhaps you could tell us a little about how you try to engage the audience in this production?
Actually, we're not forcing anybody. There's a moment in the play where Dr Stockman, the tragic hero, is giving that speech I mentioned earlier, and near the end he's saying, ok, we have to fight the political enemy and even – and this is in the original Ibsen, not the French anarchists' text – we need to "extinguish" the enemy. Then we have another character who says, "Enough is enough. I'm going to end this speech now." He accuses Stockman of fascism and says we have this terrible tradition in Germany and so it's not possible for you to say things like that. And out of rage, usually, the audience do start to interfere, and it's not because we ask them.
But after that, we do ask the audience if they agree with the speech of Stockman, and usually 80% raise their hands. Then we try to get into a conversation with the audience, but it's not something that we need to force, because there are already loads of people in the audience interfering, giving their political opinion, talking about why the other characters in the play are wrong and so on.
I'm surprised that it has happened in that way. I didn't reckon that it would work out like that in France or in Germany. But if it's not happening, it's not happening. We're not going to force the audience to do anything. Sometimes, in Avignon, it happened that there was a discussion between audience members for up to fifteen minutes. If this happens and if people really do have something to say, and it's not too stupid, we let them go.
Haha, you have to watch for the stupid ones?
Yeah, but it's true! In Avignon, there were some anti-islamic prejudices coming up. It's dangerous. But this is democracy. Democracy is always in danger because there are different forces trying to get into power. It's a hard and exhausting way of finding out what is right and wrong. We must have discourse and discussion to find out who is right and who is wrong, and there are some very stupid voices in this canon of political speeches.
We're pretty curious about the Australian audience, about how they will react. We think that how the audience reacts at this moment says something about the level of political discourse in the country we are touring. What is the Zeitgeist in Australia at the moment? I was talking to some Australians recently who said, "Ah, well, we don't have the economic crisis. We're well off." Others were saying, "We have a huge problem because we only have resources and what if this is over?" There was an Occupy Movement in Melbourne. So I'm curious. We will bring a camera and try to document all these audience reactions all around the world. We will go to Moscow soon, France, Canada, the United States. Hopefully in the end we will have a mosaic of responses that we can put on the internet.
Today it has been reported that Julian Assange was described by the American government as an "enemy of the state", not the "people" but the "state"–
It's the same.
Yeah, so there's a pretty clear parallel between Stockman and Assange?
Completely, because also the plot of his tragedy is pretty close to Stockman's. What happens, in our version of the play, is that because they cannot fight their political enemy on the level of argumentation, they find other ways to make him silent. This is what happened to Julian Assange in Sweden, and how they are trying to destroy him.