söndag 11 januari 2015

An Enemy of the People

I went to the theatre with my wife this weekend, we say Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" (En folkefiende) at Stockholms Stadsteater. The play was amazing. We visit the theatre now and then but I have to say this play is probably the best I've ever seen (together with Friedrich Schiller's "The Robbers" that we saw together three years ago). What both these plays shared was that they have been transposed from Germany 235 years ago and from Norway 135 years ago to present-day realities. The very talented Swedish-Norwegian director Alexander Mørk-Eidem has moved Ibsens's 19th century health resort with its health baths to a municipal swimming pool - the pride and the motor of the local economy (but built with the help of borrowed money).

The play treated a vast number of different topics such as the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children, brother and sister, between public and private, of how long you should be held accountable for a long ago left-behind troubled background, of (historic) blame, and, not the least of the relationship between media, politics, expertise, the mob, democracy and fascism. Behind these topics lies core issues about truth versus power. Who is right; the whistleblower who is socially inept, difficult preachy pain-in-the-ass bastard and who loves to hear his own voice but is prone not to listen to others, or, the moderate, calm politician who doesn't want to make any hasty rash decisions that might have very negative consequences for the local economy and her own career (i.e. who wants to sweep a possible scandal under the carpet)?

One thing that made the theatre play into a joyful spectacle was how it repeatedly and ingeniously broke "the fourth wall". That is the wall Francis Underwood in TV drama House of Cards recurrently breaks when he turns to the camera and speaks directly to the viewer. In the play the audience suddenly became participants at the public meeting in the local school and we were invited to vote on issues raised at that meeting. The aspiring singer-songwriter in the play at one point turned to the audience and told them they could buy his CD for 100 SEK after the show (or listen to his songs on Spotify and all but spelled out his name). We took it for a joke until he flashed copies of the CDs from the stage at the end of the show and actually did turn up to sell them afterwards. The actors also had self-reflective discussions about what they were trying to accomplish and on what they were doing in the play and on the stage in relation to the mission statement of the theatre company and in relation to the manuscript of the play. It's a little hard to explain but it was pretty awesome - a joyful spectacle that forced the audience to reconsider their role in the play (they usually don't have one except as passive spectators).

Where Ibsen's play stops at the hypocritical attitudes of the small-town bourgeoisie, Mørk-Eidem's play also lightly weaved in climate change into the story. The whistleblower turned directly towards the audience and accused us of (same as the small-town bourgeoisie of the play) turning a blind eye to the consequences of our actions and instead opting for having a nice time here-and-now (don't rock the boat!). That scene touched a raw nerve for me and all of sudden made the play a lot more relevant for me personally. It is possible to, after having seen the play, ask questions such as:

To what extent are me/we as scientists prepared to present inconvenient truths? What if telling such truths will have negative consequences for our public standing, our careers or our relationships with friends and family (for example at the Christmas dinner)? It is so much easier to milden the formulations and make them more palatable to the powers that be - especially if we are rewarded with whatever it is that is important to us. One of the messages of the play is that almost can be bought, or will turn a blind eye if something valuable or important enough is at stake. And we should not underestimate prosaic drivers such as our own convenience or financial health. How much are you willing to risk, how much are you willing to put at stake for "the truth" - when no-one appreciates what you are trying to do?

All in all, the play was amazing. I recommend everyone in Stockholm to rush to see it. There are hardly any tickets for sale during January to March, but you will have better luck finding tickets here from April until the beginning of June. My strong advice is to go see it! You will thank me afterwards. I sure regret that I haven't gone to see any of Mørk-Eidem's previous plays in Stockholm but will from now on keep my eyes open for any future plays of his.

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