The Enemy: The 139-year-old health crisis play brought up to date for National Theatre of Scotland’s comeback

When the National Theatre of Scotland heads out on the road again after an 18-month hiatus, it will make a comeback with a play that appears to be a direct response to the pandemic.

The potential impact of an escalating public health crisis, social media-fuelled public hysteria and political pressure to bury the truth will all be explored in its big comeback show The Enemy.

At the heart of the story, set in modern-day Scotland, is a power struggle between a female politician and her sister as the fate of jobs and livelihoods in a post-industrial town hang in the balance, along with personal reputations.

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Although The Enemy would appear to be born out of the Covid crisis, the reality could not be further from the truth.

Hannah Donaldson and Gabriel Quigley are the stars of The Enemy. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

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    An adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 139-year-old play, An Enemy of the People, the show was about to go on tour last spring when Scottish theatres were closed down virtually overnight.

    But the production, an adaptation by writer Kieran Hurley and director Finn den Hertog, could not be more timely or relevant now, as theatres finally reopen.

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    Touring Scotland in October and November, The Enemy opens as final preparations are being made to open The Big Splash – a vast health and leisure resort expected to transform the fortunes of a post-industrial Scottish town.

    However, tensions quickly escalate when Kirsten Stockman, a senior official at the resort, discovers that in the rush to complete the venue, plumbing work has contaminated the town’s entire water supply.

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    Writer Kieran Hurley has adapted Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People for the National Theatre of Scotland. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

    She demands that her sister Vonny, the town’s provost, halts the grand unveiling. When the politician rebuffs her pleas, Kirsten takes matters into her own hands, with huge consequences for both of them.

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    The plot of The Enemy was originally announced by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) nearly two years ago and mirrors that of the original, which focused on a small-town’s newly opened spa, with Kirsten and Vonny replacing the two brothers in Ibsen’s play.

    Hurley says: “My instinct was to follow the basic story shape of the original play quite faithfully and have respect for it, but without too much reverence.

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    “We’ve reimagined it in a small de-industrialised fictional town in Scotland that has just undergone a massive, transformative scheme to create a new tourist attraction and holiday resort.

    Taqi Nazeer, Gabriel Quigley and Hannah Donaldson rehearsing scenes of The Enemy. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
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    “By and large, people have bought into the idea that it's going to bring jobs, dignity and money. They’re walking about with a spring in their step. The whole place has gone on a massive gentrification journey and it is bidding to become the UK’s City of Regeneration.”

    In The Enemy, Kirsten, a radical activist in her teenage years, is a single mother who has recently returned home to take up a job in a development she actually proposed in a PHD and took to her politically ambitious sister, now the Lord Provost, who succeeded in getting it to the brink of reality.

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    Hurley adds: “Vonny has been instrumental in getting the project over the line. She has pegged her political career on it by transforming the town and has also been instrumental in getting her sister a job.

    "She passionately believes in her mission to improve the lives of these people, that they deserve better than they’ve had for decades and that this project needs to happen.

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    Taqi Nazeer, Hannah Donaldson, Gabriel Quigley in rehearsals for The Enemy. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

    “When Kirsten tells Vonny about a poison in the water, Kirsten expects her to go ‘this is a disaster and needs dealt with’.

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    “What she doesn't expect is that Vonny sincerely believes that, without the development, the economic prospects of the town are so bleak that to go public will be more damaging than covering it up.”

    Hannah Donaldson, who plays Kirsten, says: “Kirsten is very head strong, opinionated, strong-willed and has really strong ethics and values.

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    “She was a bit of a wild child, but was always very certain of what she believed in. She moved away after falling pregnant as a teenager, but is now back home with her daughter in a world she never imagined herself coming back to.

    "She’s maybe had to swallow some of the ideas of who she was going to become, but nevertheless knows the development is undoubtedly going to regenerate her town.

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    “When she takes her discovery to her sister, she’s told she doesn’t have sufficient evidence and to keep it under wraps as everybody in the town has been waiting for this moment. Kirsten, being the person she is, isn’t willing to do that.

    Neil McKinven, Hannah Donaldson and Taqi Nazeer in rehearsals. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
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    “She believes people have a fundamental right to know the truth. Her sister is far more concerned with her own reputation and getting the resort open, even if it means putting people at risk. Everybody turns against Kirsten and she becomes a lone voice.”

    Gabriel Quigley, who plays Vonny, says: “She is basically a really good politician.

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    “For her, it's about being the pragmatist, trying to weigh up the economic pressures with public health.

    "At the heart of the play, it’s about how far you’re going to go and how many people you’re prepared to let die before you draw a line.

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    “She’s an ambitious woman and genuinely wants the best for the town, but really knows how to push her agenda and message.

    "It definitely feels a lot more pertinent now. It has to be given we've been through a public health crisis where people have been dying.”

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    Hurley adds: “The question of how to respond to a public heath crisis - by shutting everything down immediately, regardless of the cost, to get on top of it, or keep things open and live with the threat to public health in order to keep the economy running – is the play’s central argument.

    ”The strange parallels to everything we’ve been living through were staring at us in the face too much for us to ignore them. It was genuinely surreal."