The Scottish adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play An Enemy of the People has taken on a dramatic new edge since work began, long before March 2020.
It’s surprised no-one more than playwright Kieran Hurley and director Finn den Hertog,
In Hurley’s take, an entire town turns against one woman who tries to tell the obvious truth to save their lives.
They would rather bury their heads in the sand.
This becomes a metaphor for the viral fake news which has had such a destabilising effect on politics recently.
Major public health crisis
Yet what disrupts everything for Kirsten Stockmann (Hannah Donaldson) is a major public health crisis.
This gives The Enemy not just a theme very similar to the Covid pandemic, but also an uncanny prescience about how the public and those in power react.
Along with her sister, town provost Vonny Stockmann (Gabriel Quigley), Kirsten’s on the board of an exciting new project for their depressed and deindustrialised Scottish town.
The Big Splash is a luxurious resort which is going to turn the place around, to make it a place of fun and new jobs.
Then the results of water tests which Kirsten has commissioned come back.
The water is highly toxic, thanks to the nearby waste disposal site owned by old Derek Kilmartin (Billy Mack), the paternal grandfather of Kirsten’s daughter Petra (Eléna Redmond).
It’s why so many kids are getting sick.
To Kirsten, going public seems like a hard but necessary formality, and crusading local journalist Benny Hovstad (Neil McKinven) and wide-eyed social media influencer Aly Aslaksen (Taqi Naseer) seem firmly on her side.
Dirty tricks and brutal social media
Yet Vonny isn’t. She first convinces herself the problem isn’t that bad, just a melodramatic mind game played by her sister.
Then she sets in motion dark forces to keep the truth quiet.
Manipulation, blackmail, threats, a smear campaign and finally a brutal and threatening social media backlash against Kirsten and Petra follow.
To tell a story first devised over 130 years ago, Hurley has to squeeze a few square pegs into round holes.
This includes supposedly small-town players having more sway and viral attention than they might in real life.
Yet playwright’s flair for sharp, naturalistic writing which can amuse, grab the attention and tell us something about people and society is all firmly intact.
A thriller of a play
Energetic swearing aside, this is a thriller of a play which might show a class of teenagers how the world works. To a lot of adults, it will be an eye-opener too.
Visually the play is grounded in the present by Lewis den Hertog’s video design.
Characters communicate live by Skype and on camera in hidden areas of the stage, and a chorus of volatile Twitter text comments on their every move.
Yet what really sells The Enemy is the sheer quality of the performances all round.
Especially Quigley, whose merciless self-preservation is bubbling below the calm surface at all times.
Donaldson too. During her closing monologue, she snaps and grabs the mic to address the world.
The people’s own worst enemy, her convincing gist goes, is the people themselves.