Ibsen at the Mayakovka: Don’t Drink the Water

Mayakovsky Theater at Night, file photo; adapted from image from Creative Commons/wikimedia/Shuvaev

(Moscow News – themoscownews.com – Natalia Antonova – May 27, 2013) Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” has been updated for a modern audience by playwright Sasha Denisova – and you can see the results at the Mayakovsky Theater (affectionately known as the Mayakovka), as directed by Nikita Kobelev.

In the politically charged atmosphere of the day, Ibsen is particularly relevant. He originally wrote “An Enemy of the People” as a response to Victorian critics who had deemed his work “indecent.”

The play centers on brilliant scientist Dr. Stockmann, who helps develop a baths project for his small coastal town – then realizes that the water in the baths is contaminated. The town, meanwhile, stands to profit from the baths, and reconstruction is deemed too expensive. The townspeople therefore swiftly turn on the scientist, denouncing the man who is trying to save them.

In Denisova’s adaptation, the plot has largely been left intact. Her alterations are subtly woven into the storyline – and the most important of them are not 21st century innovations (Dr. Stockmann’s daughter has a video blog, the town’s journalists run the paper using sleek new laptops, etc.).

Rather, it is Denisova’s language – with its invocation of the rhetoric favored by the ruling elite, the protester class, and everyone in between – that really sets this production apart.

At the performance I attended, audience members were made visibly uncomfortable by references to both the 1930s Terror and today’s corruption scandals. As a playwright myself, I believe that discomfort is an integral part of the post-Soviet theatergoing experience. It was therefore good to interact with coiffed and perfumed old ladies during the intermission, and to hear how much they appreciated this new, unsettling take on Ibsen.

Modern adaptations are frequently plagued by gratuitousness. Dusting off the same old Ibsen means tarting him up, as opposed to interrogating what it is exactly that makes his work so timeless.

I’m glad to see the Mayakovka’s take on “An Enemy of the People” is calm and reined in, and its exploration of both the power and the helplessness of the individual is chillingly precise.

In a time when the will of the majority is frequently invoked to justify all sorts of nonsense, it’s good to be able to lean on Ibsen for a change.