Saturday, 12 January 2019

REVIEW: An Enemy of the People at the Union Theatre


“If the only way I can be a friend of the people is to take charge of that corruption, then I am an enemy!”

This is one of my favourite plays. The last time I saw a production of it was about five years ago, and I think every time you revisit it, it will be relevant to the time you are living in. 

Director Phil Willmott starts 2019 with three plays within an Essential Classics Season called “Enemies of the People”. It starts with Arthur Miller’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s timeless political and human play about a doctor who wants to save his town by stopping the opening of a new Spring due to his discovery of unclean waters. The Spring however is a promise of new economic life in the village, and the local mayor and soon the local newspaper’s board will do everything to stop Dr Stockmann from spreading his new-found information. 

This play intertwines the fascinating subjects of democracy and corruption, the majority versus truth. The latter is particularly interesting, and leads to a very moving ending with someone who would rather be alone and live in truth than in a group of people who just want to be comfortable in what they know.

Willmott judiciously chooses to set the play in a small American town today, probably somewhere in the Midwest, far away from Washington DC. We can imagine hot weather, barbecues and pool games, as well as country music playing. In fact, in between the scenes, we hear patriotic American country music. The set design by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust shows the fa├žade of the new Springs being built, which later serves as a platform for the town meeting during which Stockmann tries to defend himself. 

The costumes by Penn O’Gara are detailed and perfectly reflect the personalities of the characters. The mayor for example is used to walking in high heels and chooses to stand out in red outfits, and I couldn’t help thinking of Sarah Palin. Stockman’s wife Catherine sports cow-boy boots and you can just sense she enjoys being outdoors. Meanwhile, Billing, who works at the local newspaper, is a modern technology-loving hipster. 

The ensemble of actors is delightful in this play, led by some very talented
people: Mary Stewart as Mayor Stockmann shows control and vulnerability simultaneously, as well as her strong love for her town. Jed Shardlow is at first a timid and then angry journalist as Hovstad, and finally David Mildon is excellent as Dr Thomas Stockmann. Some start to call him mad, and you can see his body changing under the psychological violence of the town. The final image of him being on his own and looking to the future is quite moving. This is someone who was, just like his fellow townspeople, just minding his business, but doing what he does best, and wanting to save his townsmen from illness. 

Did Donald Trump know who he was quoting when he said the media was the enemy of the people? There is something truly sad that comes up in this play in this new production: the way headlines and opinions have replaced investigation and truth. Newspapers seem to know now that a headline may sell their latest issue. When Catherine tells her husband “I’m not listening to you – I know you are right”, this scarily reminds of people agreeing with someone just because it’s them. Where has true debate gone? 

It’s so wonderful to see how this play keeps being relevant throughout generations. Go see it in order to see a great ensemble and think about how you approach truth in your life.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: free seating | Price of Ticket: £22
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