An Enemy of the People

Arthur Miller, an adaptation from a play by Henrik Ibsen
Union Theatre
to

This new version of An Enemy of the People is effectively third-generation. The grandparent, if you like, started life in Scandinavia in the 1880s, scandalising audiences with the tale of a good, if misguided, man who is beaten down by a corrupt system.

Arthur Miller adapted it in 1950, maintaining much of the original spirit but steering the message to take on board the horrors in his own country at the time, particularly the behaviour of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Third time around, Phil Wilmott once again utilises the play to speak to his own time. Somewhat incongruously, the programme and publicity material contain an image that looks suspiciously like the current President of the United States of America, although he makes no direct appearance in the text.

However, the undisguised central theme of the play now set in some redneck part of contemporary America is the rise of populism and its ability to beat down truth or, to use contemporary parlance, the skilful manipulation of Fake News.

In Kirsten Springs, “the will of the people” becomes much more significant than truth or, for that matter, the well-being of the people. If any of this sounds familiar to readers on either side of the Atlantic (or for that matter the English Channel), that is very clearly Mr Wilmott’s intention in a packed 110 minutes.

The basics are still the same. David Mildon’s Dr Thomas Stockmann is the town’s medical practitioner but also dabbles in science.

As a result of his efforts, the local springs have been found to contain miraculous properties, which are well on their way to creating an economic boom via the tourist industry.

Stockmann is on the verge of becoming a local hero although his sister the mayor, depicted with cynical relish by Mary Stewart, is looking to claim the credit to further her own political goals.

Hangers on abound including unscrupulous father-in-law, the head of the local business community and a couple of journalists who could shame even a profession that is hardly a byword for decency these days.

The true support comes from Stockmann’s wife and daughter, respectively played by Emily Byrt and Janaki Gerard, each devoted to the man but also his ideas and integrity.

These become critical when the Doctor discovers that the springs on which the town’s development rely are poisoned.

The immediate reaction divides on political lines, health seemingly irrelevant. This means that there is strong support as well as determined opposition but, slowly, almost like Twelve Angry Men in reverse, vested interests dominate to the point where what was intended to be a presentation on the project becomes a rigged debate after which violence ensues.

Phil Willmott has done a fine job in unearthing what was fast becoming a forgotten classic and then sprucing it up for a world where populism is fast becoming something more than a minority sport.

While the acting (and the accents) are uneven, this is a powerful and gripping production in which David Mildon and Mary Stewart excel, while there is a triple appeal to fans of Ibsen, Miller and incisive political theatre.

Philip Fisher