King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Ooh. I’m VERY excited about this one. I’m an avid admirer of Ibsen – what self-respecting theatre-lover isn’t? I’m in awe of the way he combines theatrical innovation and political conviction with accessible story-telling. I’m also a fan of Kieran Hurley’s work (Chalk Farm, Mouthpiece and Beats are all excellent), so I’m fascinated to see what he and director Finn den Hertog do with the Norwegian’s masterpiece, An Enemy of the People.
In fact, Hurley doesn’t change much at all, plot-wise. This 140-year-old play is uncannily prescient. The difference is all on the surface: in the modes of communication, and the cadence of the dialogue – and it’s beautifully done. The story shifts easily to a contemporary “once-great Scottish town,” where a new spa resort promises regeneration, and offers hope to the poor and dispossessed who live there. But Dr Kirsten Stockmann (Hannah Donaldson) is concerned: a sickness bug is spreading, and she’s almost certain the town’s water supply has been contaminated. But how? Could blame lie with council-approved shortcuts, aimed at bringing forward the resort’s opening? Maybe. If so, it’s more than a little awkward, because the provost is Kirsten’s sister, Vonny (Gabriel Quigley). Still, surely she will be grateful for the heads up, pleased to be able to avert a public health disaster, no matter what the cost? But no. Vonny has no qualms: without the resort, the people have nothing. They’re not sick because of poison, she tells her sister; they’re sick because they’re poor. She has a point.
Although the story remains unchanged, the staging is bang up-to-date: video designer Lewis den Hertog has created a multi-media piece à la Katie Mitchell, with ‘live cinema’ (where the onstage action is filmed and projected simultaneously onto a large screen) a key feature. There are pre-filmed sequences too, such as a jarringly upbeat advert for the new resort, and a series of enthusiastic vox pops on the local news. And there are text messages, and YouTube videos, and Skype and BTL comments a-plenty. It’s Ibsen with all the socials. It works. There’s a dizzying sense of things spiralling out of control, with Kirsten in the middle, alone, holding on to the damning test result – a dreadful talisman.
But Kirsten isn’t quite alone. She might have broken ties with her sister; her friend, Benny (Neil McKinven), and local celeb, Aly (Taqi Nazeer), might have sidled away – but her teenage daughter, Petra (Eléna Redmond) is firmly on her side. And so, perhaps, is Derek Kilmartin (Billy Mack), who has a proposal for Kirsten to consider…
It’s wonderful to see creative theatre projects taking shape again (I’ve nothing against old favourites, and it’s clear to see why theatres are being cautious post-pandemic, but it’s definitely time for something new). This particular project seems like a canny move, combining Ibsen’s timeless appeal with something bold and fresh. It’s almost guaranteed to get bums on seats, while simultaneously allowing playmakers the chance to experiment. Good call!
For the most part, it pays off. I have a little trouble hearing some of the dialogue, especially in the first act. I’m sitting quite far back in the stalls, which might have something to do with it, but I wonder if it’s more about the actors delivering their lines to cameras rather than to the auditorium. But this is my only gripe. The performances are natural and convincing, the relationships well-defined.
The message is clear: the truth matters, however unpalatable. It’s a timely homily. We need to heed the experts. The only problem is, we all think we’re Kirsten Stockmann.