DramaLondonReview

An Enemy Of The People – Union Theatre, London

Writer: Henrik Ibsen/ Arthur Miller

Director: Phil Willmott

Reviewer: Grace Patrick

First written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller and finally directed and slightly adapted by Phil Willmott, An Enemy Of The People at the Union Theatre had no short journey to reach its latest audience.

With the US gripped by a dubious administration and facing numerous land and water based crises – Flint’s disastrous water supply and the Dakota Access Pipeline both remain pertinent throughout – it is all but impossible to detach this play from the present moment. The frustration in David Milton’s Stockmann is tangible, although there are moments at which this steps all too close to hysteria. While this does not invalidate the character, it can render him a little harder to support.

Equally, the role of populism in Trump’s election has been widely discussed and, when moved to America’s South by Willmott’s production, the themes of the play clearly reflect that. The populace is treated very much as a tool to be won and loss, or a mass to be controlled, rather than a collection of individuals. Mary Stewart’s Mayor encapsulates this fully, clearly invoking the archetypal double-sided politician with little real foresight or empathy.

For all its layers of adaptation, this play serves a certain purpose brilliantly: it captures the empty, ever forward-looking hope of America’s rust belt, fuelled by a certainty of future glory. Among its relatively small cast and insular focus, there is a constant sense of a desperate hope for better things that are yet to come. It’s notable that Justin Williams and Johnny Rust’s set features a poster for an open day at a finished resort, while giving the rest of their settings a half done, unfinished appearance. The clash between the ideal and the reality grates, and it would be a challenge to write that off as unintentional.

Despite all of this relevance to the current political and social atmosphere, something in this specific production falls a little flat. There are significant sections of the first act that move relatively slowly, a fact that comes to light when the second half shows the pace that the play is capable of. This painfully slow build does not really serve its presumably intended purpose, instead making the climax of the play’s conflicts feel a little forced when they finally come. However, many performances, such as Janaki Gerard’s Petra stay strong throughout, giving the play the energy that it needs. Sustaining some of the second act’s power throughout the first could work wonders for the tone as a whole, while also allowing for some more compelling character development all round.

The infuriating choice of those in power to ignore scientific or social facts is a major facet of modern politics, and the same was true during the lifetimes of both Ibsen and Miller. However, this production sometimes fails to tap into the real rage that this play contains, instead hovering of the edge of greater possibility.

Runs until 2 February 2019 | Image: Scott Rylander

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One Comment

  1. “First written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller and finally directed and slightly adapted by Phil Willmott,”

    I found the ‘adaptation of the adaptation’ rather frustrating. I love Ibsen and Miller but I’d never seen the Miller version of this play – and it seems I still haven’t. I suspect it was Miller who cut out much of the material where Stockmann likened the common people to mongrels. A great deal of the doctor’s elitism (‘the majority is not always right…the majority is always wrong’ etc) survives; but the Ibsen text almost has him endorsing eugenics. I’d have preferred this material to be left in to remind us that, while Ibsen was an incredibly advanced thinker, he wasn’t perfect . I’m fairly sure, though, that it wasn’t Miller who changed the Mayor from Stockmann’s brother Peter to his unnamed sister. That will have been Wilmott’s decision and I’m not sure what is gained by it (though it could have been simply that he wanted to cast another woman to make the gender balance 6:3 rather than 7:2). More problematic was the role of Petra. In the Ibsen she is the Stockmanns’ daughter but in this production Catherine refers to Petra as ‘my sister’. And yet the programme lists Janaki Gerard’s role as ‘Petra Stockmann’. I’m still not sure what was going on here. Is the programme wrong or is it Catherine’s reference that’s a slip? If she’s Thomas’s wife’s sister it would be very strange for her to have the same surname as her brother-in-law. Moreover, if she’s Christine’s full sister the dynamic between her and Morten Kiil would be rather different as he would be her father rather than her maternal grandfather.

    “this play serves a certain purpose brilliantly: it captures the empty, ever forward-looking hope of America’s rust belt, fuelled by a certainty of future glory”

    I think the play, whether the Ibsen original or the adaptation, addresses a rather more universal issue than that. The story of a community that would rather risk widespread poisoning than jeopardise their profits and short term livelihoods and comforts is surely a timely warning about what’s going on far beyond the ‘rust belt’ with respect to climate change.

    As your review suggests, it’s not the classiest production ever; but it’s by no means bad and it deserves to be seen.

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