Enemy lines

While some may believe that changing a play's geographical and cultural location doesn't always preserve its meaning, the success of Tara Arts since the 1970s has done nothing but prove otherwise.

Feature by Yasmin Sulaiman | 16 Apr 2006
After the debacle that was 2004's 'Bride and Prejudice', it seems obvious that, sometimes, a gratuitous transposition of a European story into an Asian context just doesn't work, whatever its commercial potential. Theatre company Tara Arts, however, have been doing this with success since 1977. Director Jatinder Verma has triumphed with his distinct style of 'Binglish' theatre, fusing European modes of storytelling with a distinct Asian lyrical style. Verma was the first Asian man to direct for the National Theatre, the result being his acclaimed production of Moli're's 'Tartuffe' in 1990. Since then he has gone on to produce the Hindu classic 'The Little Clay Cart' (1991) as well as 'Cyrano' (1995), a version of Edmund Rostand's play. Most recently, the company has been behind a series of plays exploring the experiences of forced migration, culminating in the exciting 'Journey to the West' in 2002. Their productions have propelled the career of many an actor, including Sanjeev Bhaskar and Ayub Khan Din, the author of 'East is East'.

Tara Arts' latest venture, and one of its most exciting to date, is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 'An Enemy of the People'. One of Ibsen's most controversial plays, it tells the story of Dr Stockmann, a pillar of his community in a small coastal town in Norway. The doctor and his brother, the Mayor, have been developing baths for the town to use; at first pleased with the success of the baths, Stockmann soon discovers that waste products from the town's tannery are being leaked into the water. He writes to his brother but receives no reply, and finds it increasingly difficult to get through to the town's authorities. Refusing to accept this, he arranges a town meeting, expecting the community to hold him up as their saviour. But, instead, they turn on him, declaring him an 'enemy of the people', and his friends who initially supported his venture denounce him as a lunatic.

This production, however, transposes the play from Ibsen's original Norwegian setting into late nineteenth century British India. The Mayor is not the mayor, but the District Commissioner, and the doctor finds himself pitted against the Empire's need for civic and tourist revenue. Theoretically, the premise is convincing; Ibsen's work revolves around its indictment of Victorian ideals, a central part of which was the triumph of imperialism. The play itself is a piercing tirade against the Victorian logic that the 'community' could always be trusted, and the hypocrisy of this is juxtaposed well against the subjugation of the Indian masses during British rule. The central theme of the work is a devout sense of individualism, and 'An Enemy of the People' contains one of Ibsen's most memorable quotes: "The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone."

The fact that this high individualism continues to both seduce and befuddle many of Ibsen's audiences today is a testament to the longevity of his work, and the power of his themes. Yet it remains to be seen whether this power will work in a colonial Indian context. Based on Jatinder Verma's former success, audiences can probably rest assured that it will.
An Enemy of the People' runs at the Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, April 25-29.