Caragh Medlicott reviews A Hero of the People, Henrik Isben’s nineteenth century play reimagined by the Sherman for a new era of political deception and division.
Why is it that some stories always retain their relevance… History repeating itself? A fascination fixed inside the human psyche? Maybe we’re just artistically doomed to keep asking the same questions in the vain hope that the answers will, at some point, become satisfactory. In the case of Isben’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, the playwright’s wrestling with the quality and substance of societal truth seems to have grown only more apt in our (oft-dubbed) “post-truth” era. Certainly, the question of which truths are allowed to prosper remains a driving force in a new adaption from Brad Birch, appearing on stage at the Sherman after a long postponement due to covid, and returning under the altered name A Hero of the People.
Set in an anonymous Welsh town, Mick Powell – a suited and booted local MP – is making a name for himself pontificating about the riches his constituency is sure to enjoy should they allow a smidgen of fracking to go ahead. Smarmy, charming, and as relentless as a drill, Mick (a standout performance from Oliver Ryan) is hardly the conventional hero – but then, in the real world, heroes of his calibre might be more common than we like to admit. With a stripped-back set (the stage divided into three tiers and the audience positioned on either side), the play puts all its focus on what the characters are – or aren’t – saying. With some elbow grease and a little emotional blackmail, Mick swiftly convinces local farmer Patrick (Pal Aron), to sign over his land permissions to corporate giant Westra. It’s no surprise when the inevitable happens (a fracking-related explosion leading to a compromised water source), yet it’s the perspective A Hero of the People takes which offers novelty.
Stories of public health cover ups have long provided rich fodder for Hollywood; the underdog framework is easily applied to cases of the little guy going up against the wrath of corporations (from Erin Brockovich to Dark Waters), yet in A Hero of the People, the machinery and power of Westra is not under scrutiny. Instead, the play gets down into the nuts and bolts of how the system works, placing a magnifying glass to the lowly but well-oiled cogs – in this case, Mick – who keep the machine in good working order. Suffering from the everyday flaws of ego and self-interest, Mick allows himself to fall for an increasingly warped version of reality; agenda melding truth into something more convenient. When his adopted sister, Rhiannon (an unshakable Suzanne Packer), raises concerns about the growing reports of sickness she’s encountered as a local GP, it’s not long before a bantering altercation becomes all-out war, with Rhiannon running to local news editor Elin (Catrin Stewart) to try and bring the story to the public’s attention.
Concurrent to this plot is the meandering story of Mick’s daughter, Hannah (Mared Jarman), who has returned home after dropping out of university. With passing and furtive mentions to Hannah’s mother who it is implied has passed away, Hannah is symbolic of Mick’s sole vulnerability. In the opening half, this provides a needed counterpoint to the abrasive scenes in which Mick attempts to wrangle what he wants out of everyone and every situation, yet as the story progresses – Mick and Rhiannon becoming more and more opposed – this thread feels increasingly contrived to offer both resolution and emotional sentiment to offset the bite of political commentary. Equally, Elin’s role as Editor of the local paper flips and flops in its relevance. Given that the play is set in modern times, you can’t help but wonder whether a local activist or social media influencer might not have better fit the bill in a play which is, for the most part, highly attuned to the current climate.
Conceits aside, it is the prevailing issue of not only what is true, but who controls the narrative surrounding that truth, which keeps A Hero of the People pushing forward. While the rest of the cast suffer from backstories hastily rendered, Ryan as Mick and Packer as Rhiannon are viscerally believable as embittered siblings; that old playground resentments have simmered into adult disagreements of life and death proportions is all too believable in the hands of these considerable talents. Anyone who’s tuned into PMQs of late will be all too familiar with Mick’s ability to divert and manipulate Rhiannon’s passion into a personal weapon. It’s a microcosm of the culture fostered by the tobacco companies over fifty years ago – and reused, today, by oil corporations and social media conglomerates – one in which facts are debatable and every sane perspective must be balanced by an absurdist stance.
In these moments, A Hero of the People is teeth-grindingly realistic. In the play’s most powerful scene, Patrick asks Mick to drink the contaminated water. As flighty hesitation gives way to steely determination (the scene not, at its opening, dissimilar to the infamous Barack Obama Flint water gag), the clearly audible sound of Mick’s gulps feel powerfully symbolic… After all, how much can we really be asked to swallow at the expense of truth?
A Hero of the People is playing at the Sherman until 28 May.