Tag Archives: An Enemy of the People



Duke of York’s Theatre

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at the Duke of York’s Theatre


“The performances are superb. Matt Smith, as Dr. Thomas, owns the stage.”

Before Henrik Ibsen even became a playwright, he was well known for his controversial, anti-establishment opinions. His early works, and poetry, revealed his rebellious nature as he challenged convention and criticised society. His dramatic works cut deeper into the darker side, holding up a mirror to human nature and its inherent hypocrisies. Inevitably he was met with divided opinion. “An Enemy of the People” was no exception, and Thomas Ostermeier’s modern adaptation (translated by Duncan MacMillan) looks set to be equally divisive.

Co-adapted by Florian Borchmeyer, the play’s structure is also two-sided; the interval acting as a sharp watershed between two very different landscapes, even though it overlooks the same, indeterminate, Middle England spa town. It opens with a song. The main players comprise a shaky, indie-folk-rock band, the initial conversations breaking away from the music then weirdly segueing into Bowie’s ‘Changes’. It is difficult to determine whether this subplot has a purpose, or whether it is a surreal contrivance, but it soon gets forgotten anyway. The music is definitely not their day job.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the chief medical officer at the town’s spa baths. He has discovered that the spa’s water is contaminated. Wanting to do all he can to alert the citizens he enrols newspaper hacks Hovstad and Billing to run the story in order to prevent the town being poisoned – possibly to death. He faces opposition in the shape of his brother Peter, the town mayor who sees the closure of the baths as the death knell to the town. There is tension too between Thomas and his wife Katharina, the local upstanding yet radical schoolteacher.

The dialogue bounces along breezily, occasionally bogged down with the earnestness of late-night-student-digs debates. Yet the writing recognises this pitfall and manages to pre-empt the charges and poke fun at itself. “You sound like an undergraduate” quips Thomas to Hovstad. The blackboard walls of Jan Pappelbaum’s set are strewn with pseudo-scholarly slogans, which are eventually whitewashed over – figurately and literally. The arguments that are dished up, however, are chillingly pertinent and so close to the bone that there isn’t enough skin left to make crawl.



The performances are superb. Matt Smith, as Dr. Thomas, owns the stage. A lone wolf howling at the moon, his single-mindedness streaked with a naivety and good intentions, while Jessica Brown Findlay’s Katharina stands by him, despite being constantly at the end of her tether. Shubham Saraf, as journalist Hovstad, feeds Thomas’ fervour, encouraging his crusade like Lady Macbeth. Is he after the truth, though, or just a good story? His own quest for the truth dissolves in the saliva from the Judas kiss he plants on Thomas. Fellow journo Billing is ultimately equally disloyal – Zachary Hart giving an outstanding performance as the comic foil. There is much humour too in Paul Hilton’s mayor, Peter. As smooth and slippery as an eel his words drip from his angular grimace. The naked face of capitalism and pragmatism that is all too familiar on our front pages. Katharina’s father, Morten Kill, is an imposing figure in Nigel Lindsay’s hands. Bizarrely an Alsatian dog is also in his hands, presumably a metaphor for the dark, shady, business-minded aspects of Kill’s character beneath the leftist veneer. The dog is too friendly and well behaved to pull it off, however. Conflicts of interest also plague Aslaksen, the newspaper’s publisher. Priyanga Burford brilliantly swings from devout, self-serving pragmatism to obsequious cowardice in a glorious deadpan and often funny performance.

The second act is a completely different beast. Much snappier and forceful, it is full to the brim with contemporary, post-Brexit, post-Covid references and up-to-the-minute echoes of modernist realpolitik. It rips down the fourth wall completely, inviting the audience into a ‘Question Time’ scenario. It is obvious there are some plants in the audience, but the effect is immediate and chilling. The real coup is Matt Smith’s tirade at the podium. Brilliantly and convincingly delivered. Smith is flawlessly believable, earning his ovation, whether one agrees with him or not.

A paint splattered transition leads us into the final, short act. The journey there has been almost as messy as the stage now is (I pity the backstage crew) but it has been swaggering, anarchic and fearless. And we are rewarded with an unexpected hook. In the course of the last two hours is has been difficult to decide whether Thomas is an enemy of the people or an enemy to himself. A final twist – a mere meeting of eyes – will help you decide.

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Reviewed on 21st February 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Manuel Harlan



Previously reviewed at this venue:

BACKSTAIRS BILLY | ★★★★ | November 2023
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING | ★★★★ | February 2023



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An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People

Union Theatre

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People

Union Theatre

Reviewed – 10th January 2019



“a very difficult play which Willmott’s ambitious adaptation struggles to realise”


To be an ‘enemy of the people’ is a loaded term, one dragging along with it a history of censorship and autocratic rule. It is a threat, and one that Arthur Miller chose to employ in order to explore what might happen when the truth comes up against the will of the majority. An Enemy of the People was first adapted by Miller from a play by Ibsen and has now been updated by Phil Willmott who has placed the story in Trump’s America. In a world of post-truth and populism, this may seem like a close fit but the text itself seems unbending in this update, not lending itself to an easy parallel with the absurdity of Trump’s politics.

This production finds the intellectual Dr Stockmann fighting to save an impoverished provincial American town from building a new spa whose springs are polluted. The town, eager to see some prosperity, slowly turn against the well respected doctor, treating his scientific assessment, his facts, into fiction. Pitted against him stands Mayor Stockmann, his sister and unscrupulous career politician.

Dr Stockmann and Mayor Stockmann, however, seem to struggle to live in the same era: the mayor comes across as a 21st century corporate populist while her brother embodies a conscientious man from the 19th century, ignorant of the political dangers he puts himself in because of his pursuit of truth. It is difficult for the other characters to negotiate the space between these two wildly different positions. It becomes a play in which characters embody their political views with zeal rather than conviction.

The cast, made up of refreshingly mixed ages, generally holds the show well, though some of the American accents could have been a little tighter. Mary Stewart plays Mayor Stockmann as a woman for the first time, an excellent move which Stewart delivers with precision and charm. Jed Shardlow also delivers a convincing torn radical newspaper editer, Hovstad.

As ever, the Union Theatre’s simple but evocative staging (Jonny Rust and Justin Williams)  works well to turn a small revolving platform into a construction site. The simplicity of the staging, however, seemed to leave the actors constricted in terms of movement. Some clearer physical choices, or chairs, were needed.

This is a very difficult play which Willmott’s ambitious adaptation struggles to realise. The battle between tyranny and truth alone makes for a stilted drama that misses the opportunity to explore the subtleties of politics becoming very personal. The parallels with Trump’s America do make the play very relevant but a Brexit boggled UK audience, might find it tricky to relate to the characters, not least because a political debate of this sort would be postponed until after Christmas.


Reviewed by Tatjana Damjanovic

Photography by Scott Rylander




An Enemy of the People

Union Theatre until 2nd February


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Heartbreak House | ★★★★ | January 2018
Carmen 1808 | ★★★★★ | February 2018
The Cherry Orchard | ★★★★ | March 2018
Twang!! | ★★★★ | April 2018
H.R.Haitch | ★★★★ | May 2018
It’s Only Life | ★★★★ | June 2018
Around the World in Eighty Days | ★★★ | August 2018
Midnight | ★★★★★ | September 2018
Brass | ★★★★ | November 2018
Striking 12 | ★★★★ | December 2018


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