‘An Enemy of the People’ asks the audience for their social views

Matt Smith Enemy of the People

Matt Smith returns to playing a doctor in this updated version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, now running at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre.

During the play, audiences are invited to participate in a townhall discussion and ask “whatever they want”. As a result of this, some audience members have been left in tears, walked out halfway through and had ‘full-blown’ arguments with each other!

The play centres around a medical officer who discovers that the water in his town’s spa is contaminated. He decides to speak up about the truth, but his community attempt to silence him as it is not in their interest for this to be exposed.

Known as the father of realism, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen tackled contemporary social issues in realistic settings over a career that spanned 50 years, and experienced both adoration and controversy in his lifetime.

Hypocrisy and the suppression of the truth are frequent themes in Ibsen’s plays. It’s the powerful who lead, with impunity, persecuting any truth that might challenge their authority.

Enemy highlights how political inaction has worsened over the years, with parallels to the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this modern adaptation, Dr. Thomas Stockman (played by Matt Smith) proposes the idea for a medical spa which his brother, Mayor Peter (played by Paul Hilton), executes. The new Baths have generated employment for many and have become the town’s economic engine. When Thomas notices some visitors falling sick, he dispatches water samples to a pathology lab. On learning that the water is contaminated, he tells Peter that they need to close the Baths and reroute the water pipes. While Thomas is glad that he has saved countless lives and his hometown’s reputation, Peter informs him that he has, in fact, endangered both. Thus begins a conflict between truth and politics that, until recently, would’ve seemed surreal.

Speaking on the relevance of the play today, Smith said “there is a sort of universality to it that stands the test of time” and raises questions about truth. “How do you quantify it? Who’s telling the truth? If you’re undermining it, does it then dilute it?”

“I hope people do ask questions. It’s such a volatile time. You only need look around to see all the steam coming out of people’s ears, and the theatre has always been a space historically, where a person can go: look, I feel like this. I’m genuinely interested to know where the audience feels the morality of the play lies.”

Director Thomas Ostermeier, whose play marks his West End debut, added that he wanted to “promote the idea of how important it is to speak up and even though there are different forces that will try to silence you, you need courage to speak up”.

An Enemy of the People is produced by David Binder Productions and Wessex Grove. The cast also includes Jessica Brown Findlay, Priyanga Burford, Zachary Hart, Paul Hilton, Nigel Lindsay and Shubham Saraf. It plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 13th April.