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Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People at the Union Theatre

Mary Stewart (Mayor Stockmann), David Mildon (Dr Stockmann) and Emily Byrt (Catherine Stockmann) by Scott Rylander.
Mary Stewart (Mayor Stockmann), David Mildon (Dr Stockmann) and Emily Byrt (Catherine Stockmann) by Scott Rylander.

As anyone who has seen the 2018/19 West End production of Company can testify, it is entirely possible to have characters who were originally portrayed as being of one gender portrayed as another in a new production of the same show. In this version of Arthur Miller’s An Enemy of the People, the Mayor, Peter Stockmann, is now portrayed as a female Mayor (Mary Stewart). She is given the kind of respect that comes with holding such an office and is addressed formally as ‘Your Honour’. She does indeed appear to hold some judiciary responsibilities as well as governmental ones – or is there, like so many politicians, incongruence between what she says and what she means?

At the heart of the story is the relatively plain-taking Dr Thomas Stockmann (David Mildon), in what is practically an adaptation of an adaptation: Arthur Miller had taken the Henrik Ibsen play of the same title and reshaped it, whilst retaining its Norwegian setting. Here, the action has been unambiguously moved to the United States. On the programme’s front cover is a picture of Donald Trump about to take a drink from a bottle of water, with the words ‘an enemy of the people’ in block capital letters. Again, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions on that point. At virtually every scene change, patriotic American music was played, with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ before the interval, and Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA’ as the playout music after curtain call. The only thing lacking was an American flag on stage.

First presented in New York at the end of 1950, the play retains much relevance to contemporary society almost seventy years later – and not just because in this version, some characters dress very casually and/or seem to have their mobile phone on their person at all times. The first half is enough of a slow-burner to express hope in one’s mind at some point during the interval that the second half would pick up the pace somewhat. The audience’s patience, I am pleased to report, is rewarded, and a raucous meeting, perhaps not altogether unlike proceedings in the House of Commons on the same day as press night, ends in chaos.

I trust it is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Dr Stockmann has some grave scientific findings that threaten to put a major development in this American town back by at least a couple of years. For the Mayor, the scientist’s sister, this is tantamount to political suicide – the development has significant job creation attached to it, particularly after it opens. Never mind that the doctor’s findings are a matter of life and death: the greater good, it seems, is set aside for personal reputation.

There appears, at least to me, an implication that Dr Stockmann loses his marbles even if he never loses his principles. Having been effectively driven out of house and home, with severe implications for his wife Catherine (Emily Byrt) and their children, the doctor suddenly decides, despite having his employment terminated, to perform a U-turn on his plan to start afresh elsewhere. The ending is left open-ended, with the audience left to make their own minds up as to what may or may not have happened next.

Science takes on politics in a harrowing production with modern-day parallels. Perhaps it needed to be brought up to date, perhaps it didn’t. Either way, a convincing cast exposes some uncomfortable truths about the world at large. The timing, fortunately, or unfortunately, of this production could not have been more appropriate.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Written during the same period as the Crucible and unseen in London for nearly 30 years, Miller brings a razor sharp psychological precision to Ibsen’s timely thriller about a rebel scientist fighting to expose a corrupt regime and press.

CAST: Darren Ruston, Janaki Gerard, Jed Shardlow, Angelo Leal, Mary Stewart, David Mildon, Emily Byrt, Seamus Newham, Mark Grindrod

Director – Phil Willmott
Set Design – Justin Williams & Jonny Rust
Costume Design – Penn O’Gara
Casting Director – Adam Braham

4th January – 2nd February 2019


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