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Matt Smith’s An Enemy Of The People is panned as critics praise actor’s ‘passable performance’ but condemn his ‘clumsy and conservative’ revival of Ibsen’s classic play: ‘A fine supporting cast can’t stop it falling apart’


If public opinion serves to alienate Matt Smith in this classic morality tale, so too does it work against the actor’s latest West End endeavour – despite his most valiant efforts. 

Smith takes a starring role in An Enemy Of The People, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 critique of societal hypocrisy, as seen through the eyes of local doctor Thomas Stockmann. 

Stockmann quickly becomes alienated from local townsfolk after discovering the water at a newly opened spa is polluted, with his refusal to stay quiet threatening the community’s continued economic prosperity. 

But if the water is lukewarm, so too are the reviews; indeed, there’s a bitter irony that public opinion, so important a theme here, should also work against this contemporary West End remake from director Thomas Ostermeier. 

While Smith’s edgy take on Stockmann as a jeans wearing, David Bowie loving revolutionary has won critical praise, his efforts have been undermined by consistently weak reviews.

If public opinion serves to alienate Matt Smith in An Enemy Of The People, so too does it work against the actor's latest West End endeavour - despite his most valiant efforts

If public opinion serves to alienate Matt Smith in An Enemy Of The People, so too does it work against the actor’s latest West End endeavour – despite his most valiant efforts

Smith takes a starring role in An Enemy Of The People, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1882 critique of societal hypocrisy

Smith takes a starring role in An Enemy Of The People, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 critique of societal hypocrisy

(L to R) cast members Zachary Hart, Paul Hilton, Matt Smith, Jessica Brown Findlay, Nigel Lindsay, Priyanga Burford and Shubham Saraf

(L to R) cast members Zachary Hart, Paul Hilton, Matt Smith, Jessica Brown Findlay, Nigel Lindsay, Priyanga Burford and Shubham Saraf

Writing for the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish commented: ‘The Crown and Doctor Who star is a natural fit for the role of Dr Stockmann – but this flawed production could use a digital-era upgrade.

‘It’s a part he’s a natural fit for, with his high-brow looks and aura of broodingly intellectual, nay doctorly authority.

‘A play for today, on paper, but the concept could use a digital-era upgrade, and a shot more vigour, to set the world on fire.’

Echoing those sentiments, The Stage added: ‘Matt Smith is arresting in an arid, over-deliberate reimagining of Ibsen from German director Thomas Ostermeier.’ 

Sarah Hemming of The Financial Times singled out Smith and his co-stars, writing: ‘The performances are great, particularly from Zachary Hart as the funny, dopey Billing and Jessica Brown Findlay as the long-suffering Katharina. 

‘And Smith is terrific. His Stockmann blusters, rages and despairs, but ends up (unlike Ibsen’s original) exhausted, tugging on a bottle of beer and contemplating compromise.’

However Clive Davis of The Times was unimpressed, adding: ‘The sad truth is that Thomas Ostermeier’s sophomoric attempt to drag the Norwegian playwright into the 21st century is so clumsy it might almost be part of some sinister conservative plot to kill off left-wing theatre once and for all.

‘Smith turns in a passable performance, although he’s outshone by the ever-reliable Paul Hilton (a memorably vicious Iago at the National not so long ago) who brings a snarl to Stockmann’s establishment-minded brother.’

Smith takes a starring role in An Enemy Of The People, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1882 critique of societal hypocrisy

Smith takes a starring role in An Enemy Of The People, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 critique of societal hypocrisy

REVIEWS: An Enemy of the People

The Telegraph:

Rating:

Dominic Cavendish writes: ‘The Crown and Doctor Who star is a natural fit for the role of Dr Stockmann – but this flawed production could use a digital-era upgrade.

‘It’s a part he’s a natural fit for, with his high-brow looks and aura of broodingly intellectual, nay doctorly authority.

‘A play for today, on paper, but the concept could use a digital-era upgrade, and a shot more vigour, to set the world on fire.’

The Guardian

Rating:

Arifa Akbar writes: ‘Rock’n’roll reimagining of Ibsen’s timeless corruption drama brings the audience into direct Question Time-style dialogue with Smith’s idealist revolutionary.

‘He is a doctor, new dad and musician who belts out a David Bowie number before launching his protest against small-town corporate corruption and the sale of contaminated spa water for public consumption.’

The Stage

Rating:

The publication writes: ‘Matt Smith is arresting in an arid, over-deliberate reimagining of Ibsen from German director Thomas Ostermeier.’

The Evening Standard

Rating:

Nick Curtis writes: ‘Kudos to Matt Smith: it’s bold of him to choose this unstarry, uneven production of Ibsen’s social critique for his latest return to the stage. 

‘The story of a doctor destroyed for revealing a public health crisis in the spa waters on which his town depends, it juxtaposes understated naturalism with coarse political sloganeering and audience participation. 

‘The casually charismatic Smith and a fine supporting cast can’t stop it falling apart in the second half.’

Financial Times

Rating:

Sarah Hemming writes: ‘The performances are great, particularly from Zachary Hart as the funny, dopey Billing and Jessica Brown Findlay as the long-suffering Katharina. 

‘And Smith is terrific. His Stockmann blusters, rages and despairs, but ends up (unlike Ibsen’s original) exhausted, tugging on a bottle of beer and contemplating compromise.’

The Independent

Rating:

Alice Saville writes: ‘The ‘Doctor Who’ star makes a daring choice for his return to the stage, but German director Thomas Ostermeier’s reimagining of Ibsen’s play about a man who fights to speak out can feel smug and self-congratulatory.’

The Times

Rating:

Clive Davis writes: ‘The sad truth is that Thomas Ostermeier’s sophomoric attempt to drag the Norwegian playwright into the 21st century is so clumsy it might almost be part of some sinister conservative plot to kill off left-wing theatre once and for all.

‘Smith turns in a passable performance, although he’s outshone by the ever-reliable Paul Hilton (a memorably vicious Iago at the National not so long ago) who brings a snarl to Stockmann’s establishment-minded brother.’

 

The Evening Standard’s Nick Curtis was also left cold by Ostermeier’s production, writing: ‘Kudos to Matt Smith: it’s bold of him to choose this unstarry, uneven production of Ibsen’s social critique for his latest return to the stage. 

‘The story of a doctor destroyed for revealing a public health crisis in the spa waters on which his town depends, it juxtaposes understated naturalism with coarse political sloganeering and audience participation. 

‘The casually charismatic Smith and a fine supporting cast can’t stop it falling apart in the second half.’

However The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar offered a more enthusiastic response in a four star review, writing: ‘Rock’n’roll reimagining of Ibsen’s timeless corruption drama brings the audience into direct Question Time-style dialogue with Smith’s idealist revolutionary.

‘He is a doctor, new dad and musician who belts out a David Bowie number before launching his protest against small-town corporate corruption and the sale of contaminated spa water for public consumption.

A recent synopsis for the revived play reads: ‘Doubt spreads faster than disease in Ibsen’s thought-provoking play about truth in a society driven by power and money.

‘When Dr. Stockmann makes an unbelievable discovery about the healing waters in his local baths, he holds the future of the town in his hands, but those with everything to lose refuse to accept his word. 

‘As the battle goes beyond contaminated water, barriers are broken in this contemporary production as Ostermeier shows us why this perennial class will be relevant forever.’ 

There's a bitter irony that public opinion, so important a theme here, should also work against this contemporary West End remake from director Thomas Ostermeier

There’s a bitter irony that public opinion, so important a theme here, should also work against this contemporary West End remake from director Thomas Ostermeier

While Smith's edgy take on central character Stockmann as a jeans wearing, David Bowie loving revolutionary has won praise, his efforts have been undermined by weak reviews

While Smith’s edgy take on central character Stockmann as a jeans wearing, David Bowie loving revolutionary has won praise, his efforts have been undermined by weak reviews

Smith is back onstage after admitting he agrees with fellow actor Ralph Fiennes’ claim that trigger warnings in theatre should be scrapped. 

Fiennes, 61, dismissed the modern trend during an appearance on BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg, insisting theatre-goers should be “socked and disturbed.”

Smith said: ‘I agree. I watched it, I agree with Ralph utterly and completely. That’s why we go to the theatre isn’t it? To be shocked, to be arrested out of ourselves, to recognise ourselves in front and with an audience.

‘I also agree that if there are strobes or whatever – there are some things it (warnings) makes sense. 

‘But I worry sometimes that we’re moving towards a sort of sanitised version of everything and we’re stripping the danger and the invention and the ingenuity out of everything.

‘Isn’t art meant to be dangerous? It’s like, I always thought that was one of the great things of doing Doctor Who is that you scare children but in a controlled way.

‘But you did scare them. I mean imagine going to kids watching Doctor Who, ‘By the way this might scare you’. No, I’m not into it.’ 

Making his West End debut, celebrated director Ostermeier’s production of An Enemy of the People plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited run from February 6 2024.

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Feeble, sophomoric and paper-thin: Matt Smith is nothing if not exciting, but he’s wasted on this one-star adaptation of An Enemy Of The People, writes PATRICK MARMION

An Enemy Of The People (Duke of York’s Theatre, London)

Verdict: More likely to make us demand our money back than it is to send us rushing to the barricades.

Rating:

The last time I saw Matt Smith live on stage, he chased down a super-sized moth that had dared to invade his space mid performance at the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea.

The former Doctor Who, who also played Prince Philip in the Crown, is therefore nothing if not an exciting and unpredictable showman.

I’m sorry to report, however, that this does not so much apply to his eagerly anticipated return to live theatre. He is wasted on a piece of sophomoric, paper-thin agit-prop that’s more likely to make us demand our money back than it is to send us rushing to the barricades.

The actor with the famously vulpine features is taking the lead role of Doctor Stockmann in a feeble modern day updating of Henrik Ibsen’s great 19th-century indictment of institutional corruption in a Norwegian spa town where the water has been polluted.

Matt Smith is wasted on a piece of sophomoric, paper-thin agit-prop that’s more likely to make us demand our money back than it is to send us rushing to the barricades.

Matt Smith is wasted on a piece of sophomoric, paper-thin agit-prop that’s more likely to make us demand our money back than it is to send us rushing to the barricades.

Directed by German avant-gardist Thomas Ostermeier, it is set among a group of the town’s middle class, ‘wokey cokey liberals’ who have identified civilisation as ‘clinically dead’

Directed by German avant-gardist Thomas Ostermeier, it is set among a group of the town’s middle class, ‘wokey cokey liberals’ who have identified civilisation as ‘clinically dead’

Directed by German avant-gardist Thomas Ostermeier, it is set among a group of the town’s middle class, ‘wokey cokey liberals’ who have identified civilisation as ‘clinically dead’.

Such snarling propaganda is better suited to a student union than the West End, and with most remaining tickets priced at £100-£200, the real swindle is on Smith’s legions of faithful young fans.

The first thing that greets them in the theatre is a bar selling Veuve Clicquot champagne. Yet that hasn’t stopped the fragile pretence that the show is a fist shaken at fat cats and vested interests.

After the interval – when the blackboard set, painted with cartoon hieroglyphics, has been spattered in white paint during an ersatz display of defiance – the production turns into a political protest meeting. Smith steps up with a class-war diatribe, in which he proclaims ‘society deserves its extinction’.

As becomes apparent from the Question Time style involvement of the audience (yes, there is voluntary audience participation), feelings of powerlessness and despair at the future are real concerns for many young people.

But all they get here is flimsy moral dilemmas, as Smith’s doctor comes into conflict with his brother the Mayor (Paul Hilton), defender of the fictional town’s economic interests.

Said town is, moreover, in the grip of a serious epidemic of nepotism. Not only has the brother secured Doctor Stockmann’s job, Smith’s wife (Jessica Brown Findlay) is the daughter of a gruff Yorkshire industrialist (Nigel Lindsay) who makes a handful of appearances with an inexplicable Alsatian dog.

And no less cliquishly, Smith and his Mrs are part of a David Bowie and Oasis cover-band who rehearse in his home with the editor and leading writer of the local paper.

Nor is there any test of Smith’s acting. Placidly sitting through a public character assassination by his brother when things go bad, he loafs about the stage in designer jeans and sweat shirt, muttering about his unimpeachable integrity and getting spattered with paint balls when the town turns against him.

Personally, I didn’t turn against him, because I couldn’t get behind him in the first place.

There are audible sniggers from Whovians when one character tells him he’s a brilliant doctor, and although that may have been true when he was up against the Daleks, here he’s just roadkill for the play’s evil capitalist cronies.



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