Theatre review: A Hero of the People at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff
Sarah Morgan Jones
“It was a degree of detail that wasn’t warranted. You don’t owe anyone your whole story. Truth is a resource, a power. And you need to hold some of it back for yourself.”
Living in what is bizarrely called a post truth era the electorate is used to taking anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth with a hefty pinch of salt long since categorised as ‘bad for your health.’
The employment of spin, alternative facts and the undermining of trust in ‘experts’ have become standard fare as the overreach from public service into personal interest becomes ever more blatant and shameless.
Recent history is littered with apparent cover ups and evidence of business interests being prioritised over the health and safety of the population, and any reader here will not need a list to access examples.
Nor are we unaware of the underhand tactics of character assassination and cancellation in the absence of a reasoned argument, and how frequently this can be used to discredit and silence women.
So it is into this world that a play from the 1800s, about the conflict between public health and the economy, transitions with utter relevance.
A Hero of the People by Brad Birch is a powerful re-imagining of The Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen and effectively brings the contradictions of truth and integrity versus personal interest under a modernised spotlight.
A Sherman Theatre production, the themes transfer easily across the centuries leaving the audience in little doubt that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Oliver Ryan powerfully plays Mick, Michael Powell MP – an optimist, a father, a grieving man, a man with ambition – who thinks that he has found the solution to pull his mid-Wales town up by its worn-out bootstraps, back into prosperity.
When he strides onto the remarkably naked stage, we can see he is dynamic, he seems caring, he wants to change the town’s economic landscape and give it a future, but the future he sees involves fracking.
This stride, though, this confidence, is interrupted when his GP sister Rhiannon, played with intense clarity by Suzanne Packer, alerts him to a potential catastrophe inherent in his big idea, placing him at a crossroads with ruin and humiliation in one direction and huge wealth and a mortgaged soul in the other.
Faced with the facts of his disastrous lobbying and campaigning, he paints himself into a corner, and seeing no escape, he responds by lashing out, wields alternative facts as a weapon, threatening to destroy all that is close and dear to him.
His daughter Hannah, embodied with an honest complexity by Mared Jarman, and his sister Rhiannon have both come back home, his daughter from university, his sister from ‘away over the border’, both escaping ignominious events and personal challenges which have shaken their individual sense of self.
To them, coming home is a symbol of failure, looking backwards is bad, time in reverse – they initially believe in his mantra that moving forward is the only way.
As the scales fall from their eyes, however, they must decide to embrace the past in order to move forward in a healthy way, to accept their flaws but have faith in their principles, and as the courage of their convictions grow stronger, so Mick begins to unravel.
Within the midst of this difficult family dynamic is Elin Tate, the voice of the press, portrayed with an incisive urgency by Catrin Stewart, chairing the debate on behalf of us, the townsfolk, and Patrick, the farmer who holds the unenviable position of the casting vote, given the weight of sombre responsibility by Pal Aron.
Full of momentum
The fast-paced fencing takes place on a multi-level traverse stage, designed by Elin Steele, giving the audience a whites-of-the-eyes intimacy with the performers who have nowhere to hide as the intensity of the debate ramps up in action that at times bears all the anxiety of a final on Wimbledon centre court.
Layering up the design with understated flair, the lighting design by Katy Morison adds dramatic tension and somehow demonstrates the levels of truth and deception as well as the passage of time and the dismantling of integrity.
The final prong of the design success comes in the form of the music composed by Lucy Rivers, which, along with the sound design by Dan Lawrence, provides a visceral tempo with a definite nod to the original play’s Scandinavian roots and to a distant battlefield.
Directors Joe Murphy and Samantha Alice Jones carefully conduct and combine all the elements of the hard-hitting writing, the design, the performances and the characterisation to create a one act drama so full of momentum that the 90 minutes pass almost without a moment to fidget, and in a way that never distracts from the debate.
This home-grown Welsh production brings an elderly text slap bang up to date, spotlighting the relevance of the state of modern politics, the environment crisis and the manipulation of truth for egregious ends.
It is a production in which great complexities are delivered with apparent breath-taking simplicity and all the more compelling for that.
A Hero of the People by Brad Birch is a Made at Sherman production and runs until 28 May. Details of tickets, BSL and AD performances and the creative team can be found here.
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