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