In our current political climate where threatening issues are subverted by erratic populist leaders and selfish agendas, Melissa Reeves’ adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People, at the outset, seemed to be powerfully timely. Dr Katherine Stockman, played insightfully by the multi-talented Kate Mulvany, confronts political gas-lighting and betrayal, as three men (who represent simultaneously everything that is wrong with patriarchy and politics) attempt to silence Katherine’s revelation of contamination in the waters of her humble town’s spa, where she works as the newly-appointed Chief Wellness Consultant. We laugh at the self-absorbed and apathetic middle-class trope and feel some remorse for these depressing conditions, but haven’t we seen all this before?
While there were moments during the play where the underlying assumptions of the upper-middle class were probed to a welcome discomforting effect, Reeves’ adaptation lacked originality. Unfortunately, flashes of insight were overshadowed by the repeating of tropes and a bland depiction of the motivations behind those in power.
During the town meeting where Katherine reveals the spa water is contaminated, Katherine’s opponents humorously weave through the audience in a clever immersion. Audience members are engaged as they are thrown questions or comments by the seedy journalist, mistrusting businessman and the cowardly town mayor (who is also Katherine’s brother). As they roar, “She’s an enemy of the people”, we are reminded of the way spineless politicians create moral panics in order to pass manipulative policies.
However, this audience interaction was neither funny nor confronting enough to actually conjure the empathy required for this scene to deliver. What’s new about politicians, businessmen or the media manipulating power to serve selfish purposes? Perhaps if the production delved into the selfish motives of these personas it would have achieved its true potential for depth. Instead we were offered only shallow glimpses of the power-hungry insecurities that influenced the mayor’s selfish infatuation with inaction and the businessman’s economic opportunism.
It was a shame that the crux of the play was reduced to the town meeting, as there were personal interactions between Katherine and her mayor brother that produced one of the play’s most evocative microcosms of broader human frailty. The mayor and Katherine’s sibling feud naturally conveys the cowardice and pride that motivates her brother’s weak inaction. We laugh at the mayor and even Katherine’s idiotic pride in their respective positions. Such personal interactions offer far more interesting and original insight into the selfish motives behind political decisions.
The absence of a perceptive challenge to the status quo is also felt in the play’s exploration of sexism. While Katherine confronts sexist slurs in the form of verbal abuse and tasteless vandalism in her relentless pursuit of political power, this representation didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Women are excluded from positions of power and denigrated as irrational in their attempts to pursue it. One of theatre’s most powerful tools is to create empathy between the audience and the characters depicted on stage, but a simple relaying of facts will not garner this response. Those of us that are already deeply aware of politics’ close-knit relationship to sexism need an emotive reminder for mobilisation, while those apathetic to the facts will hardly respond to another shallow relaying of them.
If the play is truly critiquing our political malaise, it needs to consider how its white upper-middle class centrism contributes to reinforcing it. Katherine’s cleaner Randine (Catherine Davies), challenges this white middle-class activism in a surprisingly evocative monologue; “You’re still ushered from the things life throws at me”, she expresses. Mulvany skilfully conveys the silent awkwardness of Katherine proceeding this monologue, that seems to finally point to the brewing unease and tension that this play ideally would leave the audience experiencing. However, when such moments are scarce and swiftly resolved with the comfortable reconciliation of Randine’s cigarette offering, it is hardly surprising that this provocatively uncomfortable tension soon dissipates. Comfortable dilemmas resume; namely, upper-middle-class crises relating to ultimatums about inheritances which inconveniently compete with the common good.
Having left with the feeling of being an observer to, rather than experiencing the detrimental consequences of selfishness, power and pride, it is hard not to feel as though something was lacking in An Enemy of the People. Actors like Kenneth Moraleda who played the opportunistic businessman humorously conveyed our frivolous loyalty, whilst Mulvany was witty in her middle-class trope. However, with nearly every current political satire identifying society’s flaws of selfish middle-class complacency, the play demanded an original thought. Since we are painstakingly familiar with the chess moves of the various identities in political deceit, perhaps Reeves’ adaptation wasn’t so timely after all.