Hugh Bonneville

Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When a public vote chooses Boaty McBoatface as the name for a polar exploration ship, it’s easy to agree with the main character in Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People (Chichester Festival Theatre) that the majority is ‘stupid’.

Dr Tomas Stockmann starts out believing the people will welcome his revelation that the town’s spa water is unhealthy. But when local people of influence realise the effect on business and the cost of putting it right, the townspeople are soon persuaded by them that Stockmann is their ‘enemy’.

His mistake is to think that truth cannot be denied. The reality is that most of us believe what we want to believe against the facts. And if the facts don’t fit, we blame a cover up or a conspiracy or make a leap of faith.

If our hopes and fears are exploited by ruthless politicians, advertisers or others with an agenda, all the worse. When you hear the outrageous statements made by our political elite during the current referendum campaign and the level of ignorance among the electorate, even though the BBC’s Reality Check is freely available, you can sympathise with Stockmann.

He may believe the majority are stupid and society would be better run by an elite but we the audience can see that the majority are not stupid, merely uninformed, and the elite are the very ones who have undermined his truth.

An Enemy Of The People offers a view of society in which nearly everybody operates out of self interest and those that don’t are crushed by those that do. Ibsen tells the truth as he sees it and it’s a bleak view of human nature that may make him an enemy of the people but like all great artists he helps us understand humanity- provided we are prepared to accept that life isn’t black and white. Our hero Stockmann isn’t spared from an honest depiction. He may be admirable as a whistleblower but he has flaws and suspect motives.

We see that he is driven by jealousy of his brother. We cringe at his hubris when he thinks he will be feted by his fellow citizens. We realise his ‘honesty’, at first attractive, is naive because he doesn’t see the need to engage and persuade people. We find him arrogant in thinking he is superior. We are shocked at his willingness to sacrifice his family.

All these swings from initial confidence through pride, bewilderment and anger to eventual collapse are conveyed in a brilliantly nuanced performance at Chichester by Hugh Bonneville. I could feel every emotion his character was feeling. Even when I was laughing at his expectation of the honour he would receive to his insults to the crowd, I still felt sorry for him. This is a mountain range of a performance.

An Enemy Of The People directed by Howard Davies is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 21 May

A version of this article has appeared on the Daily Echo website