REVIEW: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (The Union Theatre) ★★★

Phil Willmott‘s three play season at The Union Theatre under the title ‘Enemies of the People‘ has opened with Arthur Miller‘s 1950’s adaption of Henri Ibsen‘s 1882 play set in Norway called ‘An Enemy of the People‘. As Willmott did last year so brilliantly, when he moved the timing of The Cherry Orchard to post Tsar Russia to draw parallels with Russia today, he uses this play to comment on modern day America . It is a very clever premise, as the play deals very effectively with the strong themes of fake news and the media, political ambitions, environmental concerns from scientific evidence and corruption in the corporate world . These are all drawn out very strongly but the staging and direction means while the message is clear, the drama is muted and less effective than in The Cherry Orchard.

Set Designers Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, and Costume Designer Penn O’Gara, appear to have been given no budget at all and as a result the black box space of The Union Theatre is very open and bare and there is a hollow quality to the sound (none of which helps the performers). The ill defined stage space leads to some curious blocking and groupings with the cast often speaking from the very edge of the space or from behind the wooden truck used to suggest buildings. It does not create the feel of a small American town today at all (more a rehearsal room) and it is left to the use of mobile phones to check messages and social media to suggest we are in modern America .

The cast too seem to be uncomfortable with the words and American accents, especially in the first act as if under rehearsed or unsure of the characters, most of which are very thinly sketched. I don’t know the original plays but given Ibsen’s and Miller’s better known plays have wonderful moving characters at the heart of them I assume something has been lost in the adaption to modern day and the focus on the message. Or perhaps this is why the play has not been seen in U.K. for 30 years.

The production only explodes into life in the first scene of Act 2, in which a town hall meeting (called to explain the scientific facts about the water being used to create a new spa town attraction) is turned into a rebel rousing hijacking to destroy the Dr Stockmann’s credibility (David Mildon) and point a very strong finger at Donald Trump’s political campaigning style . However, even then with the set so far forward, most of the cast speak from off stage and curiously Stockmann keeps moving away to the far back wall in a distracting way.

The other major modernisation of the play is to change the gender of the leading political character the Mayor from Stockmann’s brother to sister and Mary Stewart successfully portrays the ambitious politician. She uses the media to project herself but tries to control it to suppress alternative views and accuses her brother of badgering, ridiculing and destroying authority telling him that “we the people must say that you don’t belong here”. However she shows very little regret in destroying her own brother’s reputation.

His wife’s father Morton Kil played by Darren Ruston also uses his wealth to protect his own reputation without regard to the impact on his daughter’s family. It is a powerful chilling commendation of greed and corporate malpractice and seems more relevant today then when originally written, or perhaps the world behaviours have not changed as must over the last 100 years we simply see it more due to enormous media exposure . The Media here are represented by publisher Aslaksen , Seamus Newham and editor Horstad , Jed Shardlow but they too have no integrity and switch positions to protect their own interests.

There is no doubt this is a worthwhile production and it’s messaging is powerful and clear but I was left wondering how much more powerful a story telling it might have been with a bit more investment upfront in the staging and rehearsal room. The unsatisfactory ending where Stockmann declares he must stay and learn to be lonely, seems to imply that the good people with integrity are powerless and will be driven to edge of madness by political ambitions, corporate greed and media manipulation is a depressing thought to end on.

Reviewed by Nick Humby


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