Pros: A couple of strong performances
Cons: Wavering American accents, stodgy direction, humourless script
In 1882 Henrik Ibsen, reeling from the public outcry over the sexual frankness in Ghosts, wrote An Enemy of the People about one man daring to speak the truth at any cost. In 1950 it was adapted by Arthur Miller, keeping strictly to the same plot and scene structure but removing some of the more unpalatable references to eugenics – and it’s Miller’s version that appears at the Union Theatre.
In today’s middle America, we meet Dr Thomas Stockmann (an energetic performance by David Mildon) on the site of the Kirsten Springs, a spa development intended to bring new prosperity to the town. His discovery that the spring is poisoned by industrial pollution is supported by the town’s liberal newspaper whose editor (a rakish Jed Sharlow) and publisher (played with patrician authority by Seamus Newham) are keen to expose the hypocrisy of the town council.
Naturally, this news is not universally well received. Stockmann’s father-in-law decries the “cockroaches” he claims to have found – “They’re not mentioned in the bible, and no-one can see them but you”. Stockmann’s sister, who happens to be the town’s mayor, realises the public relations damage the news will bring, and convinces first the publisher and the editor, and then the entire town, to turn against him. Stockmann, alone, fights his cause.
Stockmann’s naivety, and that of the editor and publisher, are hard to swallow in this contemporary setting. The first half drags, with plodding dialogue and unrealistic volte-faces by the newspaper people. Only in the second half does it begin to come alive, with a towering speech by the mayor – a powerful performance by Mary Stewart, somewhere between Sarah Palin and Cruella de Vil. It’s a shame the whole cast don’t live up to this standard: with dodgy American accents that sometimes slip altogether, some of the performances are a bit below par.
“You have no sense of humour,” says the mayor to her sister-in-law. And that’s a major issue with the play: entirely devoid of wit and sparkle, it’s a dated, slow polemic that struggles to find a footing in this post-truth era. The promotional material features a close-up of Donald Trump drinking a bottle of water – a neat image to have found, but the theme is more reminiscent of Julian Assange than of Trump.
Arthur Miller’s version may have worked in 1950, but the naive outlook feels out of touch with today’s sensibilities. It would have been better to use Christopher Hampton’s 2010 version, which brought a far more contemporary spin to the story. One audience member described the production to me as ‘cumbersome’, and that neatly sums up this revival.
Author: Arthur Miller
Director: Phil Willmott
Producer: The Phil Willmott Company
Booking until: 2 February
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking Link: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/an-enemy-of-the-people.html