Thursday 10 January 2019

An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre

An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre

Arthur Miller’s An Enemy Of The People, based on an 1882 play of the same name by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, was written in 1950 and is contemporaneous with his best known work The Crucible. It’s a play where the public, politicians and the press clash catastrophically, each spinning their own version of the truth be it for money, political power, or the honourable truth.

Sound familiar? Miller may have had McCarthyism in his sights, but An Enemy Of The People seems remarkably prescient to present day America – all Trumpian bombast and fake news.

Director Phil Willmott certainly thinks so, with Miller’s play leading the new Enemies of the People season at the Union Theatre. It translates elegantly to present day with little fuss or need for tweaking, Miller’s language already sounding all too relatable to our modern ears. It is the story of a local doctor in smalltown America who discovers the local water supply is poisoned, scuppering plans for the new springs resort and potentially damaging government reputation. Yet rather than taking his advice, the local mayor (also the doctor’s sibling) pits him against the public and threatens to raise taxes to pay for water sanitation. The editor of the local newspaper, meanwhile, is stuck between them both with only money and circulation on his mind.

In this production, with its sparse staging of a construction site, the twisting of the truth has obvious parallels with the notion of fake news. The play becomes something of an absurd comedy, full of over the top American caricatures; but one that’s tragically close to reality. This is America in microcosm, albeit one that lacks in diversity. One welcome update is the switch to a female mayor, played by Mary Stewart as a nightmarish amalgam of Sarah Palin and Trump, with all the smarm you can imagine. That aside, this is a fairly straightforward interpretation that simply shifts the setting to increase the play’s modern relevance.

It’s a clever interpretation, then, but one that’s not always well executed. As a whole the staging seems restless, with too many characters pacing, arguing, or delivering their lines to the back of the stage (plus some dodgy accents). It certainly reflects the whirlwind of clashing ideals and the difficulty in being heard above the noise (literally). But it also lacks focus and clarity. As a result we side with none of these shamelessly desperate people – not the selfish, backstabbing mayor; the sleazy newspaper editor; nor even the noble doctor, who’s such a martyr for the truth he commits himself and his family to a life of persecution. After a first half that drags, in the second the doctor (David Mildon) gives a supposedly rousing and thought-provoking speech criticising the true nature of democracy, but it’s lost in the hubbub of debate. This painting characters in shades of grey is likely intentional, but it does make for a frustrating drama lacking in necessary punch.

It’s Emily Byrt as the doctor’s wife who stands out as a voice of reason – despite having few lines, she mostly stands still to deliver her lines with a commanding presence. It’s she who speaks the line at the core of the play: “without power, what good is truth?”. Here, the characters in Miller’s play wrestle so much with power that the truth is lost in a chaotic production that reflects the messiness of modern politics.


Watch: An Enemy Of The People runs at the Union Theatre until the 2nd February.

An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre

An Enemy Of The People @ The Union Theatre
Photos: Scott Rylander