Marine Furet reviews A Hero of the People, a new adaptation of a play by Henrik Ibsen from the Sherman Theatre.
I am old enough to remember the times when theatres were rife with plays that dealt with the fallout of Brexit.
In 2017, two decades ago by my count, playwrights were grasping at straws to make sense of the nation’s puzzlement at the situation it had gotten into. I was in Scotland at the time, and the event certainly registered as a seismic shock in the cultural sector. Strikingly, despite their variety, all the plays I saw at the time had one thing in common: they were all replete with regret and mourning at the things lost in the aftermath of the referendum. I am not sure how many of the plays I attended at that time were written by people who had voted for Brexit. This matters, because I think it accounts for one major difficulty dramaturgs then had to deal with and which led to some perplexing writing and staging choices: how to write well about someone whose political opinions and perspective make little sense to you.
A few years down the line, out comes Brad Birch’s new interpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People. Retitled A Hero of the People, the production, directed by Joe Murphy and Samantha Alice Jones, is one of the most masterful portrayals of a Conservative politician I have seen in some time.
The play is a fascinating portrayal of a politician on the frontline
As Conservative MP Mick Powell, Oliver Ryan’s performance is full of a depth and sensibility that elevate his character to the rank of a tragic Shakespearean hero. A few weeks after local elections that have seen Conservative councillors endure considerable losses in Wales, the play is a fascinating portrayal of a politician on the frontline dealing with the practical contradictions between his desire to do good by a community he wishes to see thrive, and the consequences of his actions.
Set in the Studio, the production follows in the Sherman Theatre’s tradition of adapting classics in a Welsh context. This adaptation diverges from the original’s focus on a whistleblower’s attempt to draw attention to a public health hazard in his town. Mick Powell (Oliver Ryan) is a Conservative MP in Mid Wales. His determination, lobbying, and local connections with farmers have enabled him to land what he sees as a major deal for his constituency’s future: bringing in a fracking company to exploit the community’s soil, where he hopes they will find gas. Opposite him is his sister, Dr Rhiannon Powell (Suzanne Packer), a principled GP having recently moved back to their hometown. Rhiannon, or Rhi for short, becomes Mick’s fiercest opponent by raising the alarm about the health risks of fracking to the community. Journalist Elin Tate (a very convincing Catrin Stewart) finds herself somehow caught in the fallout of their conflict.
Where Ibsen’s drama gave more room to the character development of the play’s Doctor, Birch’s version moves firmly to a portrayal of Mick’s motivations, hopes, and contradictions, making him a tortured father and husband as well as a ruthless politician.
The script deftly picks up on some particularly topical issues: the links between the climate and environment crisis and capitalism; anxiety at the younger generations’ en masse move to the ‘faceless, cutthroat, brutal city’ and away from their hometowns; local pride and the loss of opportunities in rural communities. The result is captivating: Mick’s investment in his home and the future of the people around him feels as sincere as it is contradictory, as portrayed in his relationship with farmer Patrick (Pal Aron).
Robust debate and agenda-setting research.
Support Wales’ leading independent think tank.
Ryan’s seamless Mid-Welsh accent, against Packer’s English inflections, is a particularly brilliant illustration of the extent of Mick’s efforts to blend in the community by concealing the truth about his origins. The concealment extends further to cover up other aspects of his personal life, much to the discomfort of his daughter Hannah (Mared Jarman, whose portrayal gives the character emotional subtlety and authenticity).
There are some downsides to this focus: deprived of the family bonds of Ibsen’s whistleblower protagonist, Rhi’s character seems occasionally lacking in warmth despite her link to her niece. Her character feels undeservingly underexplored: the play’s allusion to some old family drama leading to the siblings’ estrangement is too short to allow Rhi the same introspective depths as Mick, whose local connections are given much more breathing room. Packer’s interpretation is flawlessly eloquent, but her script occasionally feels more stunted, giving her difficult lines full of detailed explanations about the role and health effects of fracking and copper poisoning that would pose a challenge to any performer.
The play’s subtle analysis of the tensions that exist between the centre and margin of the conservative party is compelling, as is its portrayal of the struggles of grassroots campaigners who believe in the promises of capitalist investments in their communities at the expense of public health.
The play’s very detailed stagecraft is remarkable
Curiously, however, A Hero of the People does risk falling for a cliché: that of a Left looking down on people in rural communities who ‘vote against their own interests’, a populist notion which has done a lot of legwork for many a demagogue in the last few years.
The production is pared down to the bones: a platform with two elevated extremities in warm, wooden colours with echoes of soil and ancestrality. In some scenes, this extreme minimalism flies close to austerity – a directorial choice which may well alienate some and lose the audience’s attention. The lighting design by Katy Morison effectively enlivens the characters’ dilemma and internal conflicts. The play’s very detailed stagecraft is remarkable: characters cross paths seamlessly, exiting the stage on both ends in a way that turns the entire platform into a ring where truths come to be exposed and die. Thoughtful, sleek, and political, A Hero of the People is one not to miss.
A Hero of the People will be at the Sherman Theatre until 28 May.
All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.