Ibsen in India On the Road with Dr Stockmann

Christoph Gawenda as Dr Thomas Stockmann: The actors are scolded, scoffed at and challenged
Christoph Gawenda as Dr Thomas Stockmann: The actors are scolded, scoffed at and challenged | Photo: Susanne Burkhardt

Actors act, the audience watches. This role-play does not apply to Thomas Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People . Instead the audience acts. The director travelled to India with his production and reaped storms of enthusiasm. By Susanne Burkhardt

It is Saturday evening in Kolkata and a long queue has formed that extends for many blocks. It begins at Kala Mandir, a performance space in the centre of the city. The guest performance by the Berlin Schaubühne ensemble will begin here in one hour. Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People is on the programme. After Argentina, Greece, Russia and France, the play is now touring India on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut. Three days ago, the play about corruption and freedom of speech was already a hit at a theatre festival in Delhi. Now, mainly students, artists, theatre people, filmmakers and musicians are waiting patiently in the former Indian capital to try and get one of the 1,100 seats. Admission is free.

Some of them have already seen a German production, for example Henry V at the Max Müller Bhavan, as the Goethe-Institut is called in India. Inside the theatre, Thomas Ostermeier is rehearsing. The mood could be better: one actor is ill and has to miss rehearsal, the curtain is wrinkled, the ladder can’t be folded together and the baby doll cries too soon; typical guest performance woes.

Then the doors open and all the seats are occupied in no time. For an hour and half the audience watches via English supertitles as Dr Stockmann struggles against a corrupt system. The plot is about the battle of the physician, who discovers that the water in his spa is poisoned, against local politicians who lean on the press to cover up the environmental scandal.

Ostermeier sets the play in the western hipster milieu. Pertinently, the director supplements the Ibsen work with a manifesto, The Impending Rebellion, a blazing revolutionary speech that blasts topics such as family, consumption and self-discovery – and “what all needs prostheses to hold an ego together.” The actors, overwhelmed by the initial impressions of their stay in India, are uncertain whether these “European luxury issues” can really reach the people here.

Ostermeier (in sunglasses) and members of the Schaubühne team on a walk in Old Delhi: the issues of a globalized world Ostermeier (in sunglasses) and members of the Schaubühne team on a walk in Old Delhi: the issues of a globalized world | Photo: Susanne Burkhardt After an hour and a half, the production breaks the fourth wall: the audience is asked who thinks like Stockmann. Many hands are raised. A blustery debate ensues in which the Communist past of Kolkata is quite perceptible. After agreeing that the family is the heart of society, critics of consumerism have their say. The people are given false information, too much is being produced and consumed, they say, and all at the expense of the environment. The western actors slip into the roles of consumerism defenders. David Ruland, as the publisher Aslaksen, argues that consumption is a good thing and is jumped on by opponents.

One audience member compares the circumstances in Stockmann’s spa with the cover-up of the facts after the Chernobyl incident. The arguments heat up. The Indian audience debates passionately, confidently and is very opinionated. The actors are taken seriously in their roles, are scolded, scoffed at and challenged again and again. It was similar in Delhi, where Stockmann’s situation was compared with that of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden and someone asked why he didn’t simply tweet his report about the filthy water.

After the final applause, we encounter enthused viewers who are particularly impressed by the great actors and the join-in factor of the production. The issues of the evening are certainly similar to those affecting the real lives of this middle class audience. These issues have long become the issues of a globalized world.

The next morning, the 30 members of the Schaubühne troupe travel on to the final stop of their tour in southern Chennai.