An air of anticipation hangs over the Arcola Theatre as a huddled group of technicians and production staff discuss the logistics of their latest venture, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. The rising-star playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz has created her own unique version of the play, directed by the Arcola's artistic director, Mehmet Ergen. It is the first day of the second week of rehearsal and I am here to meet with Greg Hicks. Playing the eponymous 'enemy' of the piece, Hicks seems perfectly suited to the demanding and stimulating role of Dr Stockmann.
Over the years, I have come to respect Hicks's passion for theatre and his commitment to performance. Any who caught his Ghost of Old Hamlet for the RSC will remember the visceral representation of macabre decay brought to fascinatingly physical life, or should I say death, on the stage. It is no shock then, when Hicks arrives to grab an espresso and give me some moments of his rehearsal time, to meet a man whose aura is both calm and reserved and yet immediate and dynamic.
In the early 1980s, Hicks was a stalwart of Peter Hall's National Theatre regime, his youthful good looks and physique perfectly suited to heroic roles. Now, nearly thirty years on, the physique is as young as ever. What is so surprising, so exciting, is the way Hicks's face has matured. Now, Hicks evokes even greater emotional depth and drama; deep furrows and even deeper, darker eyes seem to map the world's troubled history of recent years. Now in his fifties, Hicks could model for a returning Odysseus in an Italian Renaissance painting. These are features which speak volumes, betraying their fascinating life-narrative of experience, trust, and erudite introspection.
Consequently, the Arcola publicity staff proudly display their poster for An Enemy of the People, a simple half-body photographic portrait of Hicks staring out with intense and haughty dignity. There is no doubt that this haunting image is as representative of the real Hicks as Dr Stockmann will be representative of that enemy of a local southern Norwegian community which, having invested its time and energy into the creation of a tourist attraction, the local baths, is now faced with its own moral dilemma.
There are problems with the baths which the town's doctor feels obliged to expose, not least the potentially fatal ingress of harmful bacteria into the water. His concerns, however, fall not so much on deaf ears, but on ears that have been manipulated by the local media and the pressures of the local administrative machine. Local government and the press. Deceit and corruption. The play may originally have been written in 1882, but the issues are eternal and cyclical.
"It has only been a week in rehearsal," explains Hicks, "but we've already had a run-through. Mehmet wanted to see the actual skeletal structure of the play - see what dynamic reveals itself. I've never worked with Ergen before, but I really appreciate his directing style. He likes to have a quick stab at the play right at the beginning, rather than spend two weeks improvising. That's good for me - I'm a bit of a Mamet-school-of-acting person myself."
About Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation of the piece, Hicks is effusive in his compliments, even likening it to a "Rolls-Royce of writing." As if to clarify his respect for his playwright, Hicks adds that "we are still working on the script. Rebecca has taken out most of the verbal pyrotechnics traditionally associated with Ibsen's writing style - she's got rid of the extraneous verbiage, streamlining the play into a well-oiled machine." The result, "a narrative that is much stronger - running at just over two hours." Much shorter than the original play, An Enemy of the People has benefitted from these drastic measures. Hicks confirms that the absence of the 'extraneous' is just as important as a close and restrictively faithful adherence to Ibsen's original: "It's less what is said and more what isn't that matters."
Hicks makes an interesting observation, that he consciously chose not to examine any other versions of the work prior to starting the rehearsals. "I felt it important to go only on what's given. Of course, we have a literal version of the text on the director's table in rehearsals so we can check on things we might not fully understand. An exciting aspect of Lenkiewicz's adaptation has been the revisions to Act Four, and the removal of those floral verbal arias which tended to dominate the scene - and, of course, Dr Steadmann's character."
Commenting upon the polemical message of the piece, Hicks agrees that Ibsen's play "certainly could be accused of agitprop, or of being a demi-comedy, but it is far more than that." Thus, there is also a universality to its message, whereby "the lies, the deceit, the rivalries, the corruption will always be a part of human existence as long as there are town councils." Oh, town councils. We all know about town (and city) councils! An Enemy of the People presents a melting pot of small-town political deceit; only Stockmann's voice is heard resonating within, because, as Hicks explains, "his is the one voice which is speaking the truth."
Truth versus corruption; honesty versus petty bureaucratic manoeuvring. With these contemporary images in mind, it seems an appropriate moment to ask Hicks how far he identifies with the character of Stockmann, and how far he believes the Stockmann is representative of Ibsen's own views about society. "I am convinced that a lot of Stockmann equates with Ibsen." Hicks notes that he had read about a specific speech which Ibsen had delivered to a Scandinavian society in which the playwright had become "so remote and ecstatic and self-intoxicated" that it almost provided a blueprint for Stockmann's own emotive expressiveness. "You really get the feeling that Stockmann is Ibsen's personal statement."
No apologist for Ibsen's remote self-intoxication, Hicks views the Norwegian playwright as, potentially, an "intellectual elitist." In consequence, Hicks sees Ibsen as a "singular, individual pioneer, with libertarian and radical ideas about society which have often been described as socialist." Ironically, Hicks adds, "Ibsen also seems to believe that there are some more blessed with prowess and with better leadership qualities than others. Ibsen obviously viewed himself as an 'intellectual aristocrat' - Stockmann is much more muddle-headed than that!"
Stockmann might be 'muddle-headed', but the actor playing him is far from that. Nevertheless, having compared the fictional creation with the factual dramatist, it inevitably leads to a discussion about how, in 1882 when the play was originally written, Ibsen was fifty-four. "That's the same age as me," muses Hicks, who visibly considers the implications of this information. Perhaps it is significant, he suggests, that "Stockmann was also the favourite role of Stanislavsky." Such knowledge might help explain the intensity demanded by this particular role, as well as the complex nature of those actors who successfully portray the flawed moralist.
Stockmann certainly was Stanislavsky's 'favourite' role, but it was also his most troubling. Indeed, Stanislavsky later admitted that the motivation for creating his 'system' was his realization, in 1906, that he was playing this successful part without really thinking, without considering why he was acting Stockmann the way he was - in effect, Stanislavsky recognized that he was merely acting by numbers. It was Stanislavsky's portrayal, or in his eyes failed portrayal, of Dr Stockmann that provided the incentive for the creation of a method of acting which has influenced twentieth- and twenty-first-century performance technique more than any other. Hicks is fascinatingly aware of the heritage of the role, and the implication for actors of the play as a whole.
Most importantly, however, is that joyous recognition of Hicks the actor and Stockmann the part being one and the same. "I really love the man," Hicks exclaims, "but - he's a fool." There is no doubt that the folly of Stockmann lies in his dogged determination to confront deception and corruption without recognizing the power of local government, the press, and 'the people'. There is also no doubt that Greg Hicks seems perfectly suited to this complex role, and that he is approaching it at that moment in his life when art and reality can truly combine. Ibsen might have considered himself a member of an intellectual aristocracy, but all honour to an actor whose own intellectual credentials are being directed in this potentially innovative and adventurous production.
Kevin Quarmby © 2008