SCHAUBÜHNE BERLIN: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, Friday, Oct. 5 & Saturday, Oct. 6, 8 p.m., $27, UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, www.carolinaperformingarts.org
When Tobias Veit, the executive director of Schaubühne Berlin, was summoned back to the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing after midnight, just hours after his theater company had opened its run of An Enemy of the People, he knew it couldn’t mean anything good.
After all, Henrik Ibsen’s controversial nineteenth-century drama, last seen in the Triangle at PlayMakers in 2015, could easily disturb a Chinese regime known to be leery of protest. In the play, a lone scientist openly defies local government and media, both corrupted by corporate influences, when he learns that manufacturing waste has contaminated the village’s drinking water.
Still, after touring through thirty-three countries since 2012, the Schaubühne production was a known commodity long before its arrival in Beijing last month. The company and world press had been clear about its contents, and its presenters had received a DVD and script. After this degree of vetting, what could the actors have done to offend their Chinese hosts?
According to actor Christoph Gawenda, who plays Dr. Stockmann, the show’s title character, it turned out that the problem wasn’t on stage at all. It was in the audience.
The Schaubühne production, which Carolina Performing Arts presents in Memorial Hall this week, differs from most in several aspects. In dramaturge Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation, Stockmann gradually takes on more of an edge than most American productions depict. Its actors also form an onstage band, with a set list including Gnarls Barkley, David Bowie, and The Clash, before they start chalking the blackboard walls of designer Jan Pappelbaum’s set to indicate changes in locations.
But the key difference lies in a sequence director Thomas Ostermeier introduces into the famous town-meeting scene, where Stockmann lashes out at neighbors who’ve been manipulated by the local paper and the village leaders turn on him. In Ostermeier’s version, the paper’s publisher stops Stockmann in mid-rant to poll the audience, asking who is on the doctor’s side. Then he and other characters demand to know why.
“It’s critical to the experience of the play,” says Amy Russell, director of programming at Carolina Performing Arts. “It gives the audience agency; it’s how they bring it into the present.”
It usually took a bit of prompting from the company to make the audience-participation section a robust debate, but that wasn’t the case in Beijing.
“I was quite surprised,” recalls Gawenda. “Immediately, they began talking about situations in China—about state corruption, freedom of speech, and people being killed. There was an extraordinary tension in the air.”
As Ostermeier intended, a real-world political forum was emerging from a theatrical simulation of one, and Chinese authorities were adamant that it never happen again. The company was directed to delete the sequence, and officials who attended the next day’s rehearsal confirmed that the passage had been removed.
“There was never a hard word,” Gawenda says. “They said it with a smile: ‘We are very happy you are here, but you will do it our way.’”
Actors noticed another change before their next performance: Four television cameras had been installed throughout the theater.
“They weren’t filming us,” Gawenda says. “They were aimed at the audience.”
Following two censored performances in Beijing, Chinese officials canceled the company’s dates the following week in Nanjing, citing “technical problems.”
Of course, no such censorship awaits Schaubühne Berlin when it performs here this week. If environmental scientists make disconcerting discoveries in North Carolina, lawmakers simply draft legislation mandating that the science be ignored, as then-state senator David Rouzer famously did in 2012 in response to findings on the rise of ocean levels. That, or quietly roll back oversight that might uncover unwanted data.
Nevertheless, a play about a government’s resistance to acting on corporate water contamination will inevitably find itself entangled in local politics, and it should be interesting to hear, in the participatory section, where North Carolinians stand—especially after Hurricane Florence exacerbated longstanding issues. Duke Energy’s coal ash basins flooded the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers last week, and USA Today reported that Goldsboro’s drinking water now has eighteen times the acceptable level of arsenic in it. The INDY recently observed multiple compromised hog lagoons in a flyover of southeastern N.C., and The New Yorker reported Sunday that two of them had dumped seven million gallons of fecal waste into the South and Cape Fear Rivers.
Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People is of a piece with Carolina Performing Arts’ seasonal theme of citizenship, “not just in the legal sense, but in our social and civic responsibilities to each other,” as Russell says. But is Stockmann a good citizen or a bad one? The production casts him as Ibsen originally saw him, as an antihero.
“Stockmann becomes a radical without even noticing it,” Gawenda says. By the time of his climactic monologue, the doctor speaks of exterminating those who disagree with him, in a note of passion—and possible hyperbole—that echoes the extremity in much of present-day American political discourse.
“Economics has taken over the culture,” Gawenda says about Ibsen’s story. “The majority is already being influenced by the people with the greatest economic interests, and even the politicians don’t see the long run. It’s quite hard to break through that.”