Directed by Finn Dern Hertog
Written by Kieran Hurley (After Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People)
Gentrifying urban spaces from lower-income areas is a wearying, complex and often a begrudging transformative aspect of contemporary Scotland. With various communities underfunded, underpopulated and a shadow of their once-proud market or port days, incoming businesses looking to take advantage of the space and arable landscape comes with a double-edged sabre. In a once tremendously popular Scottish town, the influx of attention and prospects from a state of the art leisure centre boasts prosperous jobs and redevelopment. There is, however, one vital issue. But when that problem interferes with the plans of a local councillor and wealthy land-owner, tactics become dirty. After all, in Scotland, if you can afford it – you can have it.
Re-imagined from Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Kieran Hurley transforms The Enemy into a contemporary piece for the National Theatre Scotland, where the gentrification of a small town are derailed by Dr Kirsten Stockmann’s discovery of high levels of toxins in the drinking water. Hannah Donaldson carries out the intended protagonist reasonably well, her strength present when in direct conflict with Kirsten’s sister Vonny or journalistic friend played by Neil McKinven. The anguish in expression as Donaldson battles with the safety of her daughter with what she deems morally right is the intended focus of the production.
But really, it is Eléna Redmond who comprises the moral centre of the production as Kirsten’s daughter; a young woman struggling with the anxieties of a new school, growing throughout the show in reliability and recognising the choices others make, offering a sliver of hope of the future in the hands of the young.
And while the ease one could find in painting a villain of our ‘antagonist’ Vonny, a local councillor with ambition is side-stepped for a more human and understandable (if grotesque) performance from Gabriel Quigley. Determined to a malicious level in spots, Quigley carries herself with authority but demonstrates the nature of Vonny’s position and the threat her sister’s discovery possesses. And though her ultimate actions in blackmail, media manipulation and false bound speeches are all too commonplace, Quigley still mintains humanity away from the power suit.
Less can be said for our secondary antagonist, a more melodramatic presence that takes a turn further into the story. Contrite elements feel as though they have been condensed and pushed into the timeframe of the production, rather than given breathing space Hurley’s writing intended. It makes for a pre-climax which unfolds a damn lot quicker than the rest of the slowly paced show.
And after months of glueing our eyes to screens, the refreshment of live in-person theatre comes with a sting from NTS. A division of action occurs onstage, with a near-even split between staged performance and enlarged video feeds. Occasionally, in the method as a live streaming vlog or Zoom call, Lewis Den Hertog’s video design provides an additional dimension, especially for Taqi Nazeer’s streaming space as a popular online creator and DJ, but the projection technique becomes distracting and unnecessary, and worse stripping away elements of the performer’s emotional connection.
The allocation of words however is sublime, with cuts landing their mark, and choices in structure and character expression coming over as authentic (at least in scripting), Hurley’s re-imagining brings the script to a contemporary Scottish tone, particularly in utilising the continued struggles with money and class division, acknowledging in the plays tighter moments that the people aren’t sick because of the poison, they’re sick because they’re poor.
Where the script cannot help is in the outpouring of distressing emotion, Kirsten’s breaking point at first comes with a rallying cry of activism and a wake-up call, quickly collapsing into hysterics. The merit within the speech itself is profound, and a brave “fuck you” to the audience who hide behind the pretences of fake news, media bias and crony politicians as an excuse for lacking freedom of choice, but it skirts the edges of melodramatic. Finn Dern Hertog’s direction thus far has emphasised relatable and every day, and whilst the genuine hurt, anger and frustration venting from Donaldson is well-executed, the dynamic shifts from losing control of the character, to losing control of the story.
Successful in adapting Ibsen’s text, Hurley’s The Enemy captures the obsessive necessity of control and trial by social media we currently live within – where people are detached from autonomy, they grasp at the opportunity to string up another. Whilst The Enemy may stumble in structure, its writing and key performances are deserving of praise, capturing a subtle understanding of contemporary power politics and media tactics than many others of a similar ilk.
The Enemy runs at The King’s Theatre until October 23rd. Book tickets here.
Photo Credit – Mihaela Bodlovic