The National Theatre of Scotland
Saturday 6th November, Perth Theatre
Writer Kieran Hurley and director Finn den Hertog bring Henrik Ibsen into the 21st century with an electric retelling of An Enemy of the People, simply titled The Enemy. The setting is an unnamed Scottish town, but the kind most readers will be familiar with – the ‘once proud’ variety of industrial town now sunken into multi-generational poverty. Ibsen’s protagonist Doctor Thomas Stockmann becomes Kirsten Stockmann (Hannah Donaldson), a PhD dropout and single mother who has returned to her hometown in a joint venture with her sister (Gabriel Quigley), a local MP. Their plans for a local health spa and resort will ‘reinvigorate’ the town’s economy, but when Donaldson blows the whistle on a potential water contamination caused by the resort’s construction, she incurs the wrath of her sister, the press and the very town she is trying to save.
This is not the first time Ibsen’s play has been mapped onto a Scottish town – the BBC did the same thing in the 1980s for a television adaptation. Small town grit, the uneasy examination of left-leaning politics, and even the prominence of water in the plot all lends itself quite naturally to Scotland. That Hurley and Hertog would choose to adapt the story in early 2020 has an almost ghoulish irony. Touring almost a year later than planned thanks to lockdown, this story of political and media corruption, public indifference and social media outrage in the face of a public health crisis feels eerily resonant.
The six players all deserve high praise for performances that bring passion and nuance to characters who could have easily fallen into the trap of one-note archetypes: the greedy businessman, the narcissistic media personality, the idealistic teen. Hurley’s genius writing likewise steers us clear of any danger of falling into a formulaic parable. Sharp wit and moments of intense vulnerability pierce through the heavy foreboding that hangs over the story, as events spiral to a disturbing climax. Indeed, it is perhaps the adjustment to a less certain ending that is the greatest change of all to the story. It simultaneously gives Donaldson’s character more fallible humanity, whilst leaving the viewer more unsettled, with no neat resolution.
The show makes clever use of a simple set. In-character scene transitions give us additional insight into the characters’ feelings. Wooden panels are used as a backdrop, and when they finally open up for the launch of the spa, they bring a sense of grandeur and catharsis, a promise everything will come out into the open for better or worse.
The use of multi-media expands what can be done with a small stage. I had mixed feelings on the overhead projector which was used to depict Skype calls, CCTV footage and Twitch streams. The use of a camera in a theatre always directs the audience’s eye, and from my seat in the circle (i.e. with the projector at eye-level) I found my attention split between whoever was in focus on the screen and the reactions of the other performers on stage. On the other hand, it permitted a number of new locations to be suggested, from a DJ booth to a seedy back alley. The close-ups emphasised aspects of the performances. Placing Taqi Nazeer’s online influencer character behind the aforementioned wooden panels, visible only from the projector on his streams, gave his character a sense of both closeness and distance for most of the play; it struck me as a subtle commentary on the artificial nature of the para-social relationships often formed between online personalities and their audiences. The voice of the town being represented via Twitter comments and stream chats was inspired. It compensated for the small cast and made the threats facing Kirsten unknowable, uncountable and thereby more existentially frightening in nature.
With a deceptively simple set and small cast, The Enemy is nevertheless a tour de force that will keep a tight grip of you long after its short runtime.