‘Enemies of the People’ is a welcome and observant theme for a theatre programme as we enter another year of post-truth politics, domestic division, and the third year in the reign of the Mad King Trump. The Union Theatre’s new programme seeks to package the most incendiary of our vox-pop characteristics into new adaptations (Can-Can, Othello) – with An Enemy of the People leading the way.
The Union Theatre’s production is a response to the populist apricot currently serving in the Oval Office.
The Union Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s text makes it clear from the outset that this adaptation (via Arthur Miller’s welcome 1950s facelift of the text, which removes Ibsen’s commentary on eugenics) is a response to the populist apricot currently serving in the Oval Office. Director Phil Willmott imposes a tight lens upon the play, and although this serves the core brief – an adaptation of Ibsen/Miller that comments on politics today – it has moments where the scope feels restrictive.
Much of the action onstage feels like contained energy. Arguments take place in the shadow-cum-aftermath of a tyrant who is elsewhere, demanding walls and workforces and weapons, and the intricacies and intimacies of small-town American life are never fully realised. The production never achieves the vibrant contemporary reality it promises to deliver – this depiction of small-town America feels like a pop-up prop, rather than as a living community undergoing a complex and unfair agony of truth. Similarly, although Ibsen’s text evangelises academia and depicts the service of a doctor within a (largely) uneducated rural town as a missionary-type status, this is a surface-level pastiche of a voter base that brought an authoritarian apricot into office. In Willmott’s depiction, it is the financially poor provinces that are to blame for electing a nightmare, despite the enormous young-male college-student (many in major US cities) demographic that also elected him.
Actors Mary Stewart (Mayor Stockmann), and Jed Shardlow (Hovstad, upstart editor) do much of the heavy lifting to ensure the play proceeds at pace. Enemy of the People is a play with a large cast in small spaces, including a famous town-hall scene where many productions explode the action into the audience stalls. Stewart and Shardlow carefully buoy these scenes where required to avoid the risk of static interaction. But even with their oblique interspersions, this scene feels awkwardly stage managed and lacks the welcome chaos of communal agitation.
In a play about those who command the centre in order to take control, and those who are pushed to the fringes as an outcome, the direction does not lay claim to the centrepieces in the play. These centrepieces can be monopolised – they are gifts, the most obvious being the town hall debate scene. Yet in almost every scene, actors back away to the edges of the Union space just as their characters have made ground. Although this might represent the capricious pendulum swing of public opinion, it is jarring when an actor has just established their place and purpose onstage and then watch them cross the stage and continue their scene stood against the far-back wall. It denotes odd blocking instructions and diminishes them just as they have established a new energy.
Other aspects of character require development. American accents slip. The relationships of intimacy, anger, and loyalty within the Stockmann family members requires some work in order to achieve an emotional impact. Currently there is very little love within the Stockmann family from the outset, which endangers the dramatic yield of the final scenes - where a family is asked to reupholster themselves for the greater good, or live as impoverished and forgotten ghosts.
This production deserves note for its extensive cast and has the seeds of a performance that can deliver the realities of a small-town faced with devastation. Some more complexity in the setting and blocking would help depict the Stockmann family as unnecessary casualties, in the war over truth.