“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.
“The second act brings with it a level of energy and tension that you would not have guessed”
Finborough Theatre is currently playing host to the European premiere of Arthur Miller’s final play. Set in a hotel in Reno, Nevada, in 1960, we see the production team of a Hollywood movie in a state of turmoil over the indisposition of the troubled leading actress, Kitty, who is riddled with self-doubt and has turned to drugs to remedy her inner demons. As the team ponder over how best to deal with the situation, it becomes clear that the picture is in jeopardy and indeed may not be finished in time.
The play’s first act revolves around a series of debates about how to get Kitty fit for filming and save the picture. The ever-present issue of the objectification of women in the film industry is brought into play here, with cinematographer Terry (Patrick Bailey) making frequent, somewhat inappropriate, comments about her physical appearance, implying that this is what ultimately sells pictures. Kitty does not appear on stage which makes it all the more a case of her being treated as an object whose opinions aren’t considered. As noted by the play’s director Phil Willmott, “She is consistently treated as a problematic resource that needs to be brought into line, with no recognition that it is this which has driven her to new depths of drug dependency and despair”.
The second act brings with it a level of energy and tension that you would not have guessed would follow the arguably invariable nature of the first. When Kitty’s trusted acting coach Jerome Fassinger (Tony Wredden) is called in to try to get through to her, each character takes turns to visit her in her hotel room and, through a series of monologues, attempt to coax her into finishing filming.
Lighting (Rachel Sampley) and sound (Nicola Chang) are used exceptionally well during the second act. Throughout the delivery of the monologues, a high tempo, almost manic, jazz piece plays, conveying a sense of urgency. A dim spotlight frames the actors as their characters converse with Kitty. Both these design elements make for a tense, high-octane second act, where the desperation of the production team to get their star fit to perform is clear to see, even without the presence of an actress playing Kitty for them to address. The actors deliver their lines so well that it isn’t hard to imagine they are talking to the troubled star.
Full of fantastic performances from all actors, this play is a clear depiction of the harsh realities of a, on the surface, glamorous industry. It’s also not hard to draw parallels between the play’s content and playwright Arthur Miller’s own struggles with his wife of five years, the infamous Marilyn Monroe. Although we don’t see or hear an actress playing Kitty, empathy can definitely be felt for her thanks to the way she is spoken about and the pressure she must be under. In summary, Finishing the Picture is a thought-provoking, well-executed production of Arthur Miller’s swansong.