Theatre reviews: The Enemy | Blood Brothers

Kieran Hurley’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People shows that little has changed in the last 140 years when it comes to the relationship between truth, power, and public opinion, writes Joyce McMillan

Hannah Donaldson in The Enemy PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

The Enemy, Dundee Rep ****

Blood Brothers, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

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When Henrik Ibsen’s five-act play An Enemy Of The People first appeared in 1882, the only means of mass communication was print journalism, and the idea of modern social media would have seemed like pure science fiction; yet his story of an expert who finds his inconvenient truths rejected by politicians and people alike is still instantly recognisable today. It’s almost as if 140 years of fast-evolving technology has made little fundamental difference to the complex human dynamics of the debate between truth, power, and public opinion that is Ibsen’s theme; and it’s because it grasps those dynamics so thoroughly, while boldly shifting the drama to the heart of the social media age, that Kieran Hurley’s The Enemy, now on tour in a powerful new National Theatre of Scotland production by Finn Den Hertog, emerges both as a stunning piece of 21st century theatre, and a thrilling tribute to the sheer force of Ibsen’s dramatic legacy.

In Hurley’s version of the story, we are transported to a profoundly depressed ex-industrial town somewhere in the west of Scotland, where the local provost – the dynamic Vonny Stockman, superbly played by Gabriel Quigley – is desperately trying to bring new life, jobs and dignity to the area by opening a splendid new luxury spa and holiday resort. The project is the brainchild of Vonny’s sister, Kirsten Stockman, who, after a rackety youth, has returned from London, where she qualified as a scientist. The problem, though, is that Kirsten – played in electrifying style by Hannah Donaldson – has discovered that during the work to create the spa, the town’s water supply has become dangerously polluted.

The crisis that follows – as Kirsten discovers the scale of the resistance to her discovery – exposes every ugly aspect of the community’s small-town life, from Vonny’s relentless political drive to deliver the project she has promised, to the cowardice of the local journalist about whom the town’s power-holders know too much, and the desperation of the people themselves, who – when Kirsten takes to the internet to publish the facts – punish her with the kind of savage social media pile-on that has become all too familiar in recent years.

In Finn Den Hertog’s thrillingly-paced 90 minute production, the stage is dominated by a big screen on which we can see the online drama unfolding, along with glimpses of more conventional media coverage of the town and its problems. It’s a mark of the brilliance of the performances delivered by this six-strong NTS company, though, that the screen never diminishes the intensity of their live presence; as Neil McKinven, Billy Mack, Taqi Nazeer, and an impressive Elena Redmond, as Kirsten’s teenage daughter, support two central performances of towering quality, that leave us longing for much more touring work of this scale and significance, from Scotland’s National Theatre.

At the Playhouse in Edinburgh this weekend, meanwhile, there’s just time to catch Bill Kenwright’s much-loved touring production of Willy Russell’s 1983 musical Blood Brothers, in which Russell also uses a fraught sibling relationship, this time to explore the whole issue of class in postwar Britain. In this current staging, the fabulous Amy Robbins – probably best know for television roles in Casualty and The Royal – plays Mrs Johnstone, the mother at the heart of the story, with a fantastic sensual warmth and passion, filling the stage with the scale of her love, her desperation, and her simple human longing for a bit of comfort in a grindingly tough life. She’s supported by an impressive 14-strong company, full of wit and energy; and as ever, designer Andy Walmsley’s romantic Liverpool skyline twinkles in the distance, promising the kind of happy ending that fate finally denies Mrs Johnstone, at the end of this true 20th century tragedy.

The Enemy is at Dundee Rep until 16 October; the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 20-23 October; Eden Court, Inverness, 28-30 October; and Perth Theatre, 3-6 November. Blood Brothers is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 16 October.

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