ARTHUR Miller’s An Enemy Of The People is a powerful play that examines how representatives of society are sometimes able to manipulate the will of the people so as to crush the truth and pursue their own agenda. Even if in the process, honest people (truthsayers) are led like lambs to the proverbial slaughter. Scary stuff.
Adapted from the play of the same title by Henrik Ibsen, Miller’s version was penned when McCarthyism was in the American air (late 1940s and 1950s) and communists were being hunted down like witches. So at the time it was very much of the moment.
It has now been revived at the Union Theatre in Southwark, London in a play directed by Phil Willmott – and has a rich taste of Trumpism about it. A view perpetuated by the programme for the ‘Enemies of the People’ season that runs at the Union until early April and features Othello and Can-Can! – as well as Miller’s play. Adorning the cover is Seamus Wray’s painting of Trump drinking from a water bottle.
The Trump connection does not simmer throughout although Willmott has given the play a contemporary setting. Indeed, it only really comes to the boil in the second act when the Mayor (a convincing and formidable Mary Stewart) denounces her brother Doctor Thomas Stockmann (David Mildon) as an enemy of the people, aided and abetted by a febrile crowd shouting ‘USA, USA, USA’. The doctor’s sin? Yes, that good old Trump chestnut called the perpetuation of ‘fake’ news (in other words, the truth).
But An Enemy Of The People should not be merely seen through the goggles of Trumpism. This is a broader play about the bravery of those who are prepared to stand up and argue the truth, even if as a consequence they lose everything and are hounded out of home and country. It also highlights the fickleness of man, those who know lies are being told but are prepared to let them go – either for self-interest or the ‘good’ of the community. There are U-turns aplenty in this play.
Doctor Stockmann is the brave one, refusing to shut up when he discovers the local spring water is contaminated, thereby threatening the commercial development – and future prosperity – of Kirsten Springs into a resort which the ill can visit and hope to recuperate at.
Yet despite the initial support of young local newspaper editor Hovstad (Jed Shardlow) and publisher Aslaksen (Seamus Newham) who want to publish and be damned, the Mayor is a formidable individual.
She bullies, threatens (individuals, the newspaper and local businesses), covers up the truth, whips the community into a frenzy, and is quite happy to tread on her own flesh and blood to get her way. Only daughter Petra (a feisty Janaki Gerard) and loner Captain Horster (a gravelly Mark Grindrod) stand four square behind the good doctor, even though ultimately they pay a heavy price for their loyalty.
At the end, as the stones come crashing through the Stockmann’s windows, the doctor mutters to his wife Catherine (Emily Byrt): ‘We are all alone. And there’ll be a long night before it’s day.’ He then adds: ‘You are fighting for the truth and that’s why you’re alone.’ Rather depressing.
Nevertheless, a stirring and thought-provoking Miller play that in the past has very much been drowned out by heavyweights Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.
Willmott and his cast have done An Enemy Of The People justice. As for Doctor Thomas Stockmann, he is nothing but a hero, although I doubt Trump would agree.