CHICHESTER, England — Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville doesn’t much like speaking to Britain’s newspapers, so it’s come as quite a surprise that he’s making his long-awaited return to the stage in a passionate play about press freedom.
Tickled by the contrast, members of the London-based media have been racing down to Chichester on the south coast of England to take in his stirring performances as a doctor who is determined to use the harsh light of the unchecked media to expose the truth—no matter whose reputation is damaged.
This is a far cry from Bonneville’s Lord Grantham, who is charged with upholding the aristocratic status quo in Downton Abbey. In the Ibsen classic An Enemy of the People, the actor risks the security of both his family and the entire establishment in pursuit of honesty.
Reviews have been good and the show has been popular, but there are plenty of tickets still on sale. Despite the shortfall, Bonneville has chosen not to drum up interest, using his Downton stardust, in the usual extensive round of media interviews.
After the performance The Daily Beast asked why he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. “Because, errr, I do publicity for the show and that’s that. I’ve got no further comment to make tonight,” said Bonneville. “Thanks for coming down, mate.”
On stage Bonneville bounds through the scenes as Dr. Tomas Stockmann demanding that the editor of the local newspaper publishes everything, despite the powerful men trying to silence him.
The play was written by Henrik Ibsen in 1882 but the moral battles at its heart are still being fought in the 21st century.
The central plot is even echoed in modern Flint, Michigan. A town in Denmark is booming thanks to the opening of a newly refurbished spa. When Bonneville’s medical officer discovers that the water supply has been infected with bacteria—“Those baths are poison,” he declares—he thinks he is saving the day.
Stockmann believes his brother, the mayor, will be impressed by his discovery and laud him for saving thousands of visitors from getting sick. “He’ll certainly be pleased such a vital fact has come to light.”
Bonneville’s Stockmann has same the kind of crusading moralistic view of the media as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom. He also suffers from a similar weakness for vanity.
In a bout of faux-modesty, he begs that the town holds no torchlight parade in his honor. “I don’t want anybody making a fuss,” says Bonneville—cleverly navigating a course between naivety and self-satisfaction.
The rest of the competent cast don’t have such interesting character arcs, with most of them—including fellow Downton actor Michael C. Fox (Andrew Parker)—given little space to develop beyond driving the narrative.
Once it becomes apparent that cleaning up the poison will cost the town a huge sum of money, and force the closure of the spa for two years, the establishment turns against Bonneville’s character.
Stockmann is told to bury the report, even though rumor of what he has done is already beginning to creep out.
“It’s not going to work; too many people already know about it,” he says. “You imagine you can silence me and the truth! But this is not going to go as smoothly as you think.”
Stockmann is naïve enough to believe that the media will be free to print the truth. “The independent liberal press will make sure you all do your duty,” he says, as the establishment closes ranks.
While the National Theatre tackled the seedy side of the press—with a lurid look at tabloid journalism in Great Britain—at the end of the phone hacking trial, this ode to press freedom comes as the British newspapers are slowly regaining their confidence.
In An Enemy of the People, the newspaper is in a fragile state and fears the establishment’s ability to restrict its tenuous grasp on sustainability.
When vested interests in the small town discover that Stockmann is preparing to jeopardize their economic health, they are easily able to force the newspaper to back away from publishing the truth.
It gets worse for Stockmann as he sees what happens when the newspaper turns against him. The play’s final act sees the newspaper and the mayor whip up a frenzy of public opinion against him.
Within the course of a few days he is shunted from whistleblower to hated enemy of the people.
Stockmann begins to lose control—even veering towards madness—as he realizes how sneaky, duplicitous, and manipulative the media can be if it is forced into a corner by powerful men.