Kieran Hurley on updating Ibsen for the National Theatre of Scotland

Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People caused a scandal in 1883, with its portrayal of a small town’s leaders putting profits before public health. Kieran Hurley’s new adaptation may be set in contemporary Scotland, but it shows Ibsen’s central theme of an inconvenient truth laid bare is still as relevant as ever. Interview by Mark Fisher

Kieran Hurley in rehearsals for The Enemy PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

The last time I interviewed Kieran Hurley for The Scotsman he was preparing for the end of the world. The performer and playwright was just about to stage Heads Up, a monologue about a city on the brink of collapse. "The main impulse for making the show is living in a world that feels like it's built on disaster," he told me.

Catching up with him in 2021, it seems like he was right. Heads Up itself was far from a catastrophe, going on to be named best play in the 2017 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. But much of the intervening time – not least the past 18 months – has felt apocalyptic. If the world didn't exactly end, it certainly looked a lot more exposed.

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This is as true for Hurley as it has been for the rest of us. He and his wife, the actor Julia Taudevin, contracted Covid-19 so early in the pandemic that it was never officially diagnosed. Only now has he shaken off the post-viral fatigue that slowed him down for months. "It's been a rough old patch and I'm quite glad to be moving on from that," he says.

A couple of years ago, he and Taudevin set up a company to formalise their creative work together. They called it Disaster Plan, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the government's emergency protocols. A name that made them laugh now seems like it was tempting fate.

The company's inaugural show, Move, opened at the start of 2020 with a tour of the Western Isles, only to be forced into quarantine for 18 months until a handful of dates on Silverknowes Beach on the recent Edinburgh Fringe. Taudevin is planning a more substantial run in 2022 – assuming no more disasters.

The fate of Disaster Plan is one thing, but Hurley believes the pandemic demonstrated a wider vulnerability. "I made Heads Up in response to rising social anxiety about living in an age of crisis," he says. "It's important to remember that that sense predates Covid. But Covid has exposed those fault lines. It's accelerated the direction of travel we were on."

He's thinking about the nationalistic refusal to share vaccines with other countries and the unequal toll paid by society's poorest. Such fault lines would have fascinated Henrik Ibsen. Like Hurley, the Norwegian playwright was drawn to social pressure points, be it the patriarchy portrayed in A Doll's House or the double standards reflected in Ghosts.

Likewise, Ibsen scandalised his critics in 1883 with An Enemy Of The People in which a town suppresses a report about contaminated spa water. The idea that civic dignitaries would put profit before health was considered outrageous.

Hurley has adapted this play for the National Theatre of Scotland as The Enemy. This version, which previews on 9 October at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock before a month-long tour, takes place in a modern-day Scottish town where a woman uncovers an inconvenient truth. Her knowledge threatens to undermine a massive regeneration programme. "The project has been sold to this community as something that will give them dignity through employment," he says. "Whoever comes along and says, 'No, you can't have that,' is going to get it in the neck."

In one respect, Hurley and Ibsen are a natural fit. You can see exactly why director Finn den Hertog came to him with the idea. Both have a twin love of compelling storytelling and political themes. In another respect, the choice is less expected. Hurley is someone you associate with small-scale fringe theatre and not the grand Victorian schematics of the well-made play.

Consider his output. He made his name with Hitch, a solo show about the time he hitchhiked to Italy for the G8 conference. He consolidated his success with Beats, the tale of a 15-year-old at his first illegal rave, which he rewrote as a film in 2019. Other hits have included Square Go, a hilarious satire of playground violence written with Gary McNair, and Mouthpiece, a provocative two-hander about Edinburgh's class divide.

He rarely does intervals, let alone five-act structures. As the playwright sees it, however, taking on Ibsen was not such a massive leap. He has learnt from the playwright in the same way as he has learnt from every collaboration, including the heady time Steven Soderbergh gave him notes about the Beats screenplay. Such experience is invaluable, but he regards it as part of a continuum.

"All of my stuff, whether it's a big adaptation of a Norwegian classic or me standing in front of a room with a microphone, they are all plays," he says. "I can hand you them – they're published. I don't see the process of storytelling in The Enemy as being something alien. Mouthpiece, for example, is just a wee two-hander but it repeatedly references archetypal storytelling structure. Beats is a hero's journey. Everything I do has a story at the heart of it."

This extends to his political concerns. His starting point might be a social question, but what emerges is a story about people dealing with a problem. "There's often a search for human connection, for community, for intimacy in a world that is oppositional to those things," he says. "There's a politics in that, but the driver is a story. I want the work to be for everyone and the access point to be an old-fashioned thing about emotional engagement through a story and through people we find empathetic."

The Enemy is at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, on 9 October, Dundee Rep from 12–16 October and touring until 6 November, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

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