Towards the end of Brad Birch’s reimagining of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, farmer Patrick places a water bottle in the centre of the stage and invites fracking enthusiast and local MP Mick Powell to take a sip. He smirks and hesitates. It is a tense, briefly thrilling moment.
While it is a tidy retelling of the source narrative, it is unfortunate that not much else in Birch’s adaptation nor in Joe Murphy’s staging comes close to being equally compelling. Birch relocates Ibsen’s original narrative to an unnamed town in present-day Mid Wales. It is an intriguing conceit: with Mick’s support, fracking company Westra are testing potential gas sites. Jobs and regeneration wealth are promised, until an explosion at the site begins to pollute the water table bringing Mick into conflict with Rhiannon, his sister and local GP.
It is never clear whether A Hero of the People is a contemporary tale of political corruption set in a specific location, or if it is supposed to function as a parable. It aims to be both, perhaps, but such ambiguity is unpersuasive.
Vaguely local while straining for universalism, it is undermined by banalities and illogical exposition that are at odds with its supposed reality. For example, if this is a contemporary world where the deletion of a corporate tweet is a significant plot point, it is never clear why the pages of a local newspaper appear to still be the only method of disseminating local information (or what the significance of this might mean in 2022, considering the perilous state of much local journalism). It is telling that the play is most persuasive in scenes that are wholly original, whereas much else falls between two dramatic stools.
But if the play fails to convince, the performances often do. As Mick, Oliver Ryan is pleasingly slimy and, as his daughter Hannah, Mared Jarman offers a compelling emotional counterpoint. The excellent Suzanne Packer stirringly imbues Rhiannon with a convincing gravitas, even when her character has to resort to emotional histrionics, and Catrin Stewart as editor Elin Tate and Pal Aron as Patrick are great in two underwritten roles.
• A Hero of the People is at the Sherman theatre, Cardiff, until 28 May.