Writer: Henrik Ibsen
Adaptor: Arthur Miller
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
This production by the Octagon, in conjunction with the local University, is part of a wider celebration of the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth on 17 October 1915. It also carries a personal resonance for Bolton Octagon Director David Thacker, who worked with Miller on his adaptation of the Ibsen play at the Young Vic in the late 1980s.
Dr Tomas Stockmann, a respected scientist, discovers that the spa water on which the town’s prosperity depends is contaminated. He announces his findings but immediately faces opposition from the vested interests of the town, including his own brother, the Mayor. This outline of the plot would apply to Ibsen’s original as much as it does to Miller’s adaptation. But Miller’s re-working of the play has not only made the language more contemporary, it has sharpened the political arguments and heightened the central theme of a man of principle at odds with the hypocrisy and compromises of the society of which he is a part.
Miller himself claimed that he was trying not so much for a fresh translation of the Swedish original, but to “transform” the language. Director David Thacker makes clear that he regards Arthur Miller’s version as much better than Ibsen’s, and it is hard not to agree with him. The original always seemed to be tilting at windmills in elevating the small town squabble over spa water into a clash between entrenched elites and radical extremism.
The language is now more accessible, the plot development is faster and more exciting, the drama has more verve and energy, and for the audience it has more immediacy and relevance. During one scene the bearded radical Tomas, and his priggish frock-coated brother Peter harangue one another across the living room carpet: it is hard not to be reminded of Corbyn and Cameron at the dispatch box.
The Octagon stage this revitalised classic in the round, (if an octagon can be round). The living room set has almost all of the furniture, and consequently the actors, hugging the perimeter like Irish bachelors at a dance. It sometimes seems as if the only character who never sits, or stands still, is Tomas. This may emphasise his intellectual and emotional energy, in contrast to those around him, but it also means that scenes are quite static for long periods. By contrast, the immersive public meeting is vibrant, raucous and exhilarating.
The costumes and set are appropriate for the period in which the Ibsen original was written (1882) but this ensures that scene changes are prolonged, as carpets and heavy furniture are positioned. Sometimes this allows the tension of the drama to dissipate as we wait for the next scene to commence. More positively, the piano and violin pieces which accompany these changes are always in keeping with the mood of the piece. Above the auditorium hang window frames of various shapes and sizes, a glazier’s dream mobile, but a constant reminder of fragility and impending danger.
Rob Edwards, as Tomas, inevitably carries much of the acting weight in this play, and does so with panache. His Doctor Stockmann is a flawed hero, with touches of arrogance and self-love, as well as courage and self-belief. Rob Edwards also manages to make Tomas credible as a concerned father and conflicted brother. His counterpart and nemesis, his own brother Peter, is played with an air of repressed torment by David Birrell. Clearly the opposite extreme to the free-thinking Tomas, and willing to preserve his position in society by any means available, he nevertheless conveys a concern for his brother’s self-destructive trajectory while oiling the wheels. Other rôles may have been less significant, but all performances were full-hearted.
Miller has successfully infused a very Victorian morality play with a dose of classical Greek tragedy, used it as an allegory on modern politics, and modernised its language and the relationships between it’s key characters. The Bolton Octagon has given it energy, sensitivity and heart. The ending has echoes of Butch and Sundance, as Tomas, sheltering his family from the assault of the mob, refuses to recant and nobly insists that the lonely fight for the truth must prevail. It sounds beautiful but hollow.
Runs until Saturday 31 October 2015 | Image:Ian Tilton