Kieran Hurley & Finn den Hertog reimagine Ibsen in The Enemy
Kieran Hurley's adaptation of Ibsen's play, about the power dynamics of a poorly-handled health crisis, was put on hold during the pandemic. We chat to Hurley and director Finn den Hertog about why touring it now is more timely than ever
The National Theatre of Scotland is returning to live stages once again. The company's first national tour since before the pandemic is The Enemy, a contemporary Scottish reimagining of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, created by the award-winning dream team of writer Kieran Hurley and director Finn den Hertog. The production was already in the works when COVID-19 hit, halting the process. Now, Hurley, den Hertog and members of the original cast have returned to the rehearsal room, finding that The Enemy – with its focus on power and a conflict of interest thrown up by a public health crisis – has a number of the same themes that have dominated our lives for the past 18 months.
The story's enduring relevance may be a reflection of the timelessness of Ibsen's classic, written in 1882. Hurley's script stays true to the original, with its themes of "civic hell, truth and political corruption", but relocates the action to the post-industrial parameters of a once-thriving Scottish town. A major top-down regeneration project is in full swing, desperately attempting to bring life – and a much-needed economic boost – to a forgotten population. But decisions must be made when the water supply of its flagship project, a brand new leisure resort, is found to contain poison. The short-term health of residents is pitted against the long-term stability of the economy and a crucial question is posited: which outcome will benefit the town more – and who is the enemy of the people?
Initial discussions about this adaption began in 2016, when den Hertog approached Hurley with the origins of the idea. Hurley is quick to emphasise that this is a fairly standard time-frame for this scale of production, despite the unintended hiatus. Even so, it's fascinating to think about how the ever-changing political landscape of five particularly tumultous years might have affected the creative process. In the time since The Enemy was conceived, the UK has seen three Prime Ministers, COVID-19, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a General Election and Brexit (not to mention Trump). Considering the play is about power, corruption, the media and accountability, was there a relationship between the events of the outside world and the production's journey?
“At one point, [The Enemy] looked like it was going to happen in 2019,” responds Hurley, “but stuff gets nudged out, because other stuff feels more appropriate. And so I do remember feeling an anxiety of 'maybe this play is not going to feel as current and appropriate as it did when we first started writing'. But this play has been around for 130-odd years. It’s been reimagined and rewritten and readapted and recontextualised. This play is always relevant.”
den Hertog agrees. "The first half of Jaws is The Enemy of the People," he says excitedly. "The whole thing about the Mayor refusing to close the beaches – that's such a similar relationship to the antagonist [in the play]... the Mayor [who] refuses to close the economy of the town." He outlines numerous historical adaptions of Ibsen's classic that have all reflected the political contexts of their time, from Arthur Miller's version during the McCarthy era to the play's popularity in Nazi Germany. "Whatever's going on in the world will be read into it by the audience," he explains. "It's not so much about how we are responding to [world events] – it's more like 'how will the audience see this figure, this character, this line, in the context of 2019 versus 2020 versus 2021?" "Themes that are inherent in the original felt quite topical to the way the world is now," adds Hurley. "They're not necessarily changing with the electoral wind."
Social media and COVID-19
But though the universality of Ibsen’s text stands as a testament to his craft, this production proudly brands itself as a uniquely Scottish and “increasingly relevant” adaptation. Though Hurley reiterates that The Enemy is not a political commentary, it’s perhaps no coincidence that at the time of the project’s creation a populist and dichotomous rhetoric was beginning to take up space in the media.
In late 2016, tensions around Brexit were running high. The Daily Mail published the infamous 'Enemies of the People' headline alongside images of the three judges who had ruled that the UK Government required parliamentary consent to give notice of Brexit. Some months later, in a similar vein, the same publication covered Theresa May’s snap General Election with the tagline 'Crush the Saboteurs!', borrowing a radical phrase from the Russian Revolution to refer to Brexit dissenters in Parliament. In America, Donald Trump was elected President after a campaign based on fake news tirades.
For Hurley, it was important that the play captured the chaotic stream of public opinion in a contemporary, post-truth world. Notably, his playscript modernizes the townspeople through the introduction of social media. “Kieran and I had the conversation about the fact that you cannot do a version of this play in the 21st Century without the internet and without social media,” says den Hertog. “The town exists in this much more online, digital space.”
COVID-19 has had the most sizable impact on the course of the production, not least because of its forced cancellation in 2020. Thematically, returning to the stage with a fictional public health crisis could hardly be more prescient. How did den Hertog approach rehearsals the second time around – did he feel a need to adapt his creative vision in response to the last year? “That’s the sliding doors analogy,” he responds.
“There have been no substantial rebates, and there’s been no change to the ending, right? But the script has continued to evolve. As soon as you get actors wrapping themselves around it, you’re going to find out new things about the play." It's impossible to know, however, how differently the production might have turned out if it weren't for the pandemic. "A piece of new writing would evolve in the same way, but how this would have happened under a completely different set of social conditions an imaginary year and a half ago?" he muses. "I don’t know”.
What we do know is that recent events have rendered this production even more pertinent. The Enemy isn’t a play about COVID, and it isn’t a play about the government’s actions. But in 2021, in a world dominated by our own public health crisis and infused by the discourse around it, could it be about anything else?
The Enemy tours Greenock, Dundee, Edinburgh, Inverness and Perth, 9 Oct-6 Nov