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Many questions as media storm plays out on screen in National Theatre of Scotland's play The Enemy


By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: The Enemy

Eden Court, Inverness

****

A big moral dilemma to get your teeth into is played out in The Enemy with seriously 21st century theatre techniques – and perhaps a dash of lockdown culture.

The Enemy – sisters Kirsten (Hannah Donaldson) and Vonny (Gabriel Quigley). Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
The Enemy – sisters Kirsten (Hannah Donaldson) and Vonny (Gabriel Quigley). Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

That lockdown experience has bedded us into living our lives and relating to the world on a TV, laptop or phone screen, from our entertainment to our daily work lives on Zoom. Appropriately given the multi-media nature of the play, there is a film of The Enemy to come.

Director Finn den Hertog with his brother and video designer Lewis, made extensive use of a big screen high at the back of Eden Court’s stage. Close-ups on faces, scrolling messages, video clips and vox pops – dominated the presentation of the drama that took us to the heart of a deadend town about to be transformed by a big development.

Or is it?

The National Theatre of Scotland cast energised almost cartoonishly ‘big’ characters: the passionate free spirit and principled scientist Kirsten (Hannah Donaldson); her sister Vonny, a ruthlessly pragmatic PR-conscious politician (Gabriel Quigley); the fine-talking but sleekit, compromised journalist Benny (Neil McKinven); the corrupt businessman and would-be grandad Kilmartin (Billy Mack); the media-savvy onlooker Ali (Taqi Nazeer).

Hannah Donaldson as Kirsten with messages on-screen. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Hannah Donaldson as Kirsten with messages on-screen. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

At the start of the play, Kirsten and her teenage daughter Petra (Elena Redmond) have returned to the mum’s home town where she has a new job working on the resort which is set to transform the neglect and poverty of the place’s past. The town – powered by the will of its mayor, Kirsten’s sister Vonny – is even bidding to become the UK city of regeneration.

So on bid launch day, it’s inconvenient when Kirsten’s silent suspicions are confirmed that the water has been contaminated and people are getting ill – and she wants to go public using her old friend, journalist Benny – and radio host Ali – to get the news out.

But Vonny has other plans.

And alongside the political incompatibility the contamination exposes between the sisters – are historic family tensions, such as businessman Eric Kilmartin’s determination to buy his way into the affections of his estranged daughter-in-law Kirsten and his granddaughter Petra – his gifts to her, a giant teddy and ice cream, symbolically inappropriate.

Elena Redmond as Kirsten's daughter Petra with her estranged grandfather, businessman Eric Kilmartin (Billy Mack). Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Elena Redmond as Kirsten's daughter Petra with her estranged grandfather, businessman Eric Kilmartin (Billy Mack). Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Kieran Hurley’s writing adapts Henrik Ibsen’s original play The Enemy Of The People and makes his adaptation feel utterly contemporary. One example is the banter shared by Kirsten and Petra, part of a note-perfect portrayal of a mother and daughter relationship, with Petra a plausible teenager, learning to own her power. Ultimately she becomes for her mother over the course of the play the ‘rock’ the name Petra means, as they had discussed. And the gap between their generations is neatly highlighted when Kirsten refers to Petra staying off school as ‘dogging off’ – and Petra sniggers, along with the young audience in for the matinee in Inverness, as ‘dogging’ means something a little different these days...

There are two central moments in the fast-paced 90-minute drama – the first, a showdown between the sisters where Kirsten dramatically calls her sister’s bluff.

Gabriel Quigley as Vonny, the mayor. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Gabriel Quigley as Vonny, the mayor. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

And along with the constant uneasy counterpoint Kathryn Joseph’s music offers to the action, the chillingly quick escalation of the social media storm attacking Kirsten, played out on the screen in scrolling written messages but also with sinister whispering voices, creates a powerful sense of the hysteria and threatened violence whipped up by the online media.

It’s Kirsten – poised in an apparently unresolved dilemma as the play ends – who in an early conversation with Petra perhaps gives the best hint to what she will ultimately decide for their future, when she tells her daughter “The important thing is to be an independent thinker.”

With questions about truth, freedom, personal responsibility, and whether it is ever right to take the money and run, the timing of The Enemy allows us the chance to take our own recent experiences of public health on the line into account when we answer.

And in this COP26 week, it was good to spot at the bottom of the programme that 100% of the set had been recycled from previous productions. MC

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