We catch up with theatre writer and former Glasgow Uni student, Kieran Hurley, about The Enemy – a modern re-working of Henrik Ibsen’s iconic play which has been re-imagined and relocated to Scotland.
The playwright, writer, actor, and former University of Glasgow student, Kieran Hurley, is all set to debut his latest work, The Enemy, in October after delays thanks to Covid-19 in 2020. We caught up with the Hitch and Beats creator for a chat about all things Ibsen and theatre.
The Glasgow Guardian: It must be a massive task re-imagining and writing the work of Henrik Ibsen, specifically An Enemy of the People, as he was famously known as “the father of realism”. Did you feel a particular connection to Ibsen in your own writing process?
Kieran Hurley: I’d never adapted a big classic play like this before, and it was always going to feel like an exciting challenge. Ibsen is adapted frequently and, in a sense, it feels like a bit of a playwright’s rite of passage to have a crack at one of his. I found the key, for me, was to find a balance between being respectful of the original while not being over-awed by it. You can’t be too precious. We’ve had to get stuck in and get our hands dirty, move things around, and chuck stuff out.
GG: The Enemy holds a particularly interesting parallel to real life at the minute, with a public health crisis and political/health figures handling situations in a way they feel best protects their jurisdiction. Do you feel The Enemy is as relevant to audiences now as it was when it was first shown in another form in 1882?
KH: The point of an adaptation is always to find something inherent in the play that can speak to now, and then tease it out in an interesting way that casts a new kind of light on the original. Initially the themes in Ibsen’s play that felt topical to us were to do with a conflict between the idea of a kind of elite expertise and popular will – it felt very timely after the Brexit vote in 2016. But there’s also something to do with the volatile nature of public opinion, and what it means to be at the centre of an orchestrated hounding. It felt like we could do something timely with this by re-setting this story in the age of social media. And then of course the pandemic came along, initially cancelling the production which had been scheduled for 2020. It was very surreal, because as you say, the central story in the play really mirrors what was happening in those early days of the pandemic: do you shut down immediately to save lives, or keep the economy open? An Enemy of the People bears a lot of similarities with Jaws in that regard, with the question over whether the mayor is going to close the beach. It was extremely bizarre to be watching all these memes of Boris Johnson as the mayor in Jaws roll in and thinking “we’ve got a play that’s exactly about this, and yet because of all this, nobody might ever see it.”
GG: The Enemy has previously been set in a Scottish town, in a 1980 television adaptation. What do you feel a post-industrial, modern Scottish setting brings to the work? Do you feel the show will be interpreted differently in different cities that it’s showing?
KH: Ibsen’s play is set in a rural Norwegian spa town in the 19th century, where the town’s economy is reliant on the health-giving properties of the water, with the action of the play kicking off with Dr. Stockmann’s discovery that the water is in fact poisoned. What is the equivalent of such a place in 21st century Scotland? There isn’t really one. So instead, our story happens in a de-industrialised small town that has undergone a massive top-down regeneration project through the building of a huge state-of-the-art indoor beach resort and health spa complex, called the Big Splash Resort. Of course, that brings up all sorts of new conversations about the nature of such developments, and their relationship with power, capital, and government.
GG: The Enemy seems to most like a vastly different body of work from your previous play, Beats, which dealt with the personal and political aspects of the 1990s Rave scene in Scotland. Do you feel there are any threads of commonality in your works? Or do you enjoy dealing with different subjects?
KH: Yeah, it’s a really, really different play but then I wrote Beats ten years ago. It would be weird for me to still be writing one-man shows about raving. As for threads of commonality across my work, that’s a good question. I think as a writer it’s more for other people to decide that sort of thing, though it’s probably true to say there are common themes. A lot of my stuff has been, in different ways, about atomised and lonely people searching for community and love and connection in a world that tends to pull us apart. That’s definitely true of earlier stuff like Beats, Hitch, and Chalk Farm (co-written with AJ Taudevin), but it’s also there in Mouthpiece and probably other stuff too.
GG: As a writer, performer, and theatre-maker based in Glasgow – what’s your relationship with Glasgow as a playwright? Do you feel Glasgow is a strong base for theatre production as it is for film/tv production?
KH: Glasgow has been an absolutely brilliant place for me to live and make work, especially early on. Sadly, a lot of what made it special and enriching for me when I was just starting out has now been destroyed due to gross acts of negligence and cultural vandalism. When I was a student at the University of Glasgow, the Tramway was a venue that routinely booked large-scale international avant-garde theatre work and you could frequently have your mind blown in that massive space. Even more importantly, we had the Arches, which had the National Review of Live Art every year. And it had a remit to support new, experimental, cutting-edge work by graduates and unknown artists. Imagine that. When I was just out of university, I could book a rehearsal space in the Arches for free sometimes, and develop a new piece of work in this basement room next to a pub toilet underneath Central Station. And then with any luck, get it programmed in Arches Live in front of an audience and national critics. You mentioned Beats earlier, and there is simply no way that show could ever have been made without a venue like the Arches – which was also the best nightclub in the country – supporting it. I don’t want to come across as bleak and old; you can’t crush people’s impulse to make art and to pursue a life in it and there will be young people doing all sorts of brilliant stuff in spite of this I’m sure. But I think that people in Glasgow in their 20s now who want to make theatre will have a much harder time finding international inspiration and institutional support than I did even 10 years ago. And that’s a terrible shame and has a meaningful effect on the culture.
GG: What advice would you give to young people who would like to get involved with theatre-making/writing?
KH: Find people you want to work with or who you like and trust, and support each other. Find your tribe and build your own scene. Read each other’s work and champion and celebrate each other. Put on your own scratch nights and your own performances and build your own buzz around your work and the work of your peers. Do all this for the love of it as much as you possibly can, but then as you establish yourself, don’t be afraid to know your own worth and stick up for it in financial terms. Join a union – have a look at the website of the Scottish Society of Playwrights – and as things progress, learn to say no. Give your ideas time and give yourself time to grow with them. Google “Letter To A Young Practitioner by Goat Island”. And understand that there isn’t really a point where you break through, and you have a guaranteed income from playwriting. That may have been true of some people a generation before me, it isn’t really true of my generation, and it won’t be true of most of yours. You’ll most likely be doing other things on and off for the rest of your life to make pay, and that’s fine. Don’t confuse your legitimacy as an artist with the extent to which you’ve professionalised it.
GG: What show stands out in your memory as a particularly important play in shaping your own passion for theatre?
KH: Howie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe. I grew up in Edinburgh, and while we didn’t really go to the theatre, my dad – who is Irish – would occasionally clock when there was a bit of Irish culture in town during the festival and take us along. So he took us to see this explosive dark and violent pair of monologues about Dublin’s brutal underbelly at the Assembly Rooms when I was about 14. I was electrified by it, but I only really noticed later in life what an influence it had been on me writing monologues in my earliest plays. Later on at the Arches, shows like Give Up! Start Over! (In the darkest of times I look to Richard Nixon for hope) by the TEAM and An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch became massive reference points as I was figuring out who I was and what kind of work I wanted to make. Also, a grainy VHS of Forced Entertainment’s 1987 show 200% and Bloody Thirsty watched in the resources room in the basement of the Theatre, Film & TV Studies department in the Gilmorehill building here at Glasgow Uni.
GG: Finally, how are you celebrating The Enemy’s debut in October?
KH: Ha, I won’t be, really. I’ll go on press night and sit anxiously in the back row until it’s finished, then breathe a huge sigh of relief that it was ever able to happen while feeling immensely proud of everyone who made it so. And that’ll be that.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s upcoming tour of The Enemy is touring Scotland from 9 October – 6 November. More information, dates, and tickets can be found on their website here.