Opening up Phil Willmott’s ‘Enemies of the People’ Essential Classics season for 2019 is a new production of Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People, which is itself adapted from a play of the same name by Henrik Ibsen. The play has a limited run at the Union Theatre, prior to Offenbach’s Can-Can! and Shakespeare’s Othello, as part of the same season.
A new spa is about to open in a close-knit American town, and is set to bring good health & economic prosperity to the area. However, Thomas Stockmann (a local doctor) – who had the initial idea to make use of the springs, though for medical benefit – has discovered that a tannery has managed to pollute the water upstream of the town, meaning that the supply is poisoned and that the town is at risk of wiping itself out. Stockmann plans on publishing an article in the local paper to alert the town to his findings; editor Hovstad is initially on board, but when the mayor finds out about it, she seeks to manipulate the newspaper into withholding this important piece of information. Even if it ends up pitting her against her brother…
This particular production has been set in present-day America, drawing on the unease created by the Trump administration and the ‘Make America Great Again’ faction. It could just as easily have been set in the UK, but it’s probably for the best to give us just that little bit of distance as we watch. It’s a testament to the relevance of the production, and the pinpoint accuracy of the writing, that it really gets under your skin; Ibsen’s original was written in the 1880s, and Miller adapted it in the 1950s, but everything is scarily recognisable to a 21st century audience. The culture of ‘balance’, rejection of experts, a proliferation of no consequences politics & decision-making, and the prioritisation of capitalism over welfare all make an appearance.
The meeting scene at the beginning of the second act makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing, and it really is incredibly tempting to start shouting at the mayor as she starts to use rhetoric and empty promises to ensure her brother – the one with all the facts – doesn’t get an opportunity to properly state his case. You can tell that Miller wrote this around the same time as he penned The Crucible, as Dr Stockmann is a rather Proctor-esque character; his life may not be in imminent danger, but his determination to speak the truth at any cost comes across loud and clear.
On the whole, this potent source material is rather effectively mined. It comes in at approximately two hours (with an interval); it takes a little while to warm up, the first act bogged down a little as it sets everything up, but once it gets going it is truly gripping to watch. A bit of variety in scene transitions would be nice, as the blackouts are slightly awkward, and perhaps a little work on American accents is required for one or two members of the cast.
Two standout performances come from David Mildon and Mary Stewart, playing Doctor and Mayor Stockmann. They set up an antagonistic relationship from the off, which only increases as the play progresses, and embody the passionate stances both of their characters take. Stewart almost delights in the nasty, ruthless streak the mayor has to draw upon to save her career, whereas Mildon really brings alive the dilemma Dr Stockman faces.
My verdict? An incredibly timely revival of Miller’s Ibsen adaptation, with two standout lead performances – a vital, if uncomfortable, watch.
An Enemy of the People runs at the Union Theatre until 2 February 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.