October 19, 1997
By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE
. . . Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer who battles vested interests to close municipal baths he knows to be polluted, isn't just a valiant crusader for truth, health and morality. He is absurdly tactless and na´ve, and, once his fires are lit, as unstoppable as a steam engine without a governor. In the famous scene in which he denounces democracy, and gets branded a public enemy in return, you can't always tell whether he is speaking for Ibsen or going raving mad.

From the start, Ian McKellen misses none of the ambiguity. He clatters onstage, hair flapping, hands slapping everything, from his own thighs to other people's backs. The impression is of geniality and generosity, but also of impetuosity, self-indulgence and mental blindness.

 His scenes with Stephen Moore's Peter Stockmann, who happens to be Thomas's brother as well as the spa-town's long-suffering mayor, are as much displays of unacknowledged sibling rivalry as expressions of principle. A quarrel about water-supplies rapidly deteriorates into something like fisticuffs in the playpen. Sir Ian never loses our sympathy — it's painful to watch a man of such decency tranformed into one of those bent, bowed figures who were paraded in conical hats in Mao's day — but his blundering idealism often puts our esteem to the test.
 

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