Theatre in Wales

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An Enemy for the People by Gary Owen
First presented in 2006 by Ruth is Stranger Than Richard 
cast size:4
synopsis:
Loosely based on the Ibsen play of almost the same name, this is Gary Owen using the theatre to work out a long-held personal grudge, again.

He says - 'In 1997 I hugged complete strangers on Borth beach when we won the referendum, and anything seemed possible in that brave new dawn. Skip ahead to 2003, and those fools down the Bay are arguing about where to sit. I have not forgotten: and now I will be revenged.'

A savagely satirical and terrifyingly funny new play, An Enemy for The People is set in the halls of power of a small semi-independent nation on the edge of Europe.  Terry discovers that the dangerous ineptitude of the government is ruining the lives of the people it supposedly leads. And so he sets out to make sure that the people learn the truth about their government. The trouble is, Terry is the First Minister.

Unflinching in its depiction of party politics and what it takes to be a leader in 21st century Britain, An Enemy for the People is a play that sets out to examine the heart of a Nations self-doubt.
 

   There are 5 reviews of Ruth is Stranger Than Richard 's An Enemy for the People in our database:
A major New Welsh play
An Enemy for the People by Gary Owen
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venue
Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
July-14-06
The companys publicity brochure has written on it, in very small print, the words A new Play by Gary Owen. These words need to be printed much, much larger and should say A Great New Play by Gary Owen. The play marks the writers coming of age. Not that there has been anything immature about his previous work. There he has explored his own thoughts and the inner workings of the human mind looking out and puzzling within. Now, working in a clear narrative form, he, not unlike Ibsen himself, assumes the poets position and takes a detached look at life and he doesnt like much of what he sees. This is a play about politics and in some ways the poet and the politician share similar aspirations. As the politicians lose their way, we need our poets and playwrights to bring them back down to earth.

The leading character in the play is the First Minister of a recently devolved nation and he seems to be doing all right, probably marking himself at about 8/10. Actor Steffan Rhodri stands handsome and tall and brings us an intelligent and sharply observed performance with just the combination of arrogance and self-doubt to make us feel that his First Minister is someone we could almost trust.

Owen opens the play on a light satirical note. The FM and his attractive political assistant, a beautiful, and cool performance of understated determination from Clare Cage, are discussing security plans for a new Assembly building. It seems that the proposed very expensive tank- deterrent is going to prove totally useless. Like many great satirists Gary Owen seems to have a sneaking warm regard for his targets and although he pulls no punches, this adds a touch of elegance to the work.

Owens writing has a distinctive touch of Stoppardian wit with an almost Shavian insight and an irony stolen from Oscar Wilde. Whilst he makes no shattering philosophical comment, it is in the very nature of his naturalistic dialogue that the play finds its dynamism and vitality. This is a major New Welsh play. It is refreshingly well directed by Adele Thomas, brining a strong combination of youthful experience in both writing and directing in Wales that is to be greatly welcomed and encouraged.

The balance sheet for the devolved government is not looking good, The play concludes that theres just not enough people in there with the wit to do the job properly, a view many will share with the playwright. Maybe the population is just too small to produce the intellects qualified to run the Principality, a word that really gets under the skin of Rhodris now struggling FM. Or is democracy just too difficult a system for mere human beings to cope with? He decides that a referendum for Independence is the only way forward. A referendum that everyone else thinks is sure to be lost; yet another potentially great man losing his way!

A great deal of back-stabbing and complicated scheming led by old political hand Glyn played with a compelling Kinnockesque relish by Ifan Huw Dafydd and involving an excellent and strongly convincing performance from Jonathan Floyd. The FM is made An Enemy for the People, the referendum is won. Where the hell do we go from here?

Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard has received project funding from the Arts Council of Wales just for these five days at Chapter in Cardiff. All the Councils funds have been allocated for this present year. Culture Minister Alun Pugh wants to take over the Arts Council because not enough of its annual 27 millions goes to Wales Objective One areas. He should put his money where his mouth is and give the company additional resources from his Cultural Fund so that it can take the play to every theatre and hall in every Objective 1 town and village throughout Wales.
reviewer:
Michael Kelligan
Will the real Gary Owen please stand up ?
An Enemy for the People by Gary Owen
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venue
Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
July-23-06
Each play that this staggeringly talented writer makes is different. Perceptive, allegorical, darkly-humoured in Crazy Garys Mobile Disco. Reminscent, xx in The Shadow of a Boy. Eclectic, documentary, complex in Ghost City.

And, now, in this take on Ibsens classic drama of political and personal responsibility, we have the political or maybe the apolitically angry and the witty with a play that ostensibly debates the state of the nation after devolution.

Being critical through ridicule of those that govern, and of their ideology, has a long tradition and in theatre its a theme that we can find in various nations plays during the struggle for independence: in Wales the most controversial play ever is still Caradoc Evanss Taffy which in 1923 caused riots from the outraged London Welsh when it opened at the (ironically-named) Prince of Wales in the West End and its a play which helped make its controversial and provocative author still despised in many quarters.

I suspect there will be those who will similarly see Gary Owen as a traitor.

Why ? Not simply because his three politicians are all cynical, devious and ruthless but because he has the temerity to present a nation that is actually worse off because of devolution, a failed experiment because there are simply not enough people of high enough ability to run a country.

Enemy for the People is, of course, fiction, a play, and these are not real people and neither is the evidence real statistics. In fact not once are we told that this small nation is actually Wales: it could be Ruritania or Illyria.

Except that actually the characters are rather familiar.

We can see in Terry (Steffan Rhodri), the First Minister, not merely the current holder of that post but the man who would have been king but for a moment of madness on Clapham Common and one of the elder statesmen of a nationalist party and various others.

In the bombastic fixer and king-maker, Glyn (Ifan Huw Dafydd), there is not only the embodiment of corrupt Old Labour but phrases we remember from a man whose overconfidence lost Labour a general election victory.

And in Sian (Claire Cage), the ambitious and gifted young AM, there is more than a touch of well, so many bright young things.

And while the statistics proving that people under a devolved government are poorer, sicker and thicker than under the previous centralised government are simply not true, there is enough of a ring of truth about them to make them credible: whether that is, as Terry claims, simply because the quality of politician is not good enough, isnt the point here (although a theatre-going audience would undoubtedly agree that every Welsh culture minister has been irredeemably ignorant and inept - including the one who is thanked in the programme for her advice).

You may think, nevertheless, that it weakens the plot we would have preferred some identifiably real failings, perhaps but this isnt really satire, where criticism is based on fact, but pointed political comedy about (like Ibsen) truth-telling.

And as such it works well. It is very funny, with crisp script and sharp direction from Adele Thomas for her ever-adventurous Ruth is Stranger than Richard company and Sgript Cymru. All three main characters turn in robust performances especially, maybe, Ms Cage, whose portrayal of the young idealist on a sharp learning curve benefits from some excellent timing and neat facial expressions.

What didnt work, I felt, was the honey-trap scene where Terry allows himself to be picked up by male prostitute Jay (Jonathan Floyd), with its obvious reference to Ron Daviess downfall. But here the disillusioned Terry allows himself to become a figure of ridicule not for the sexual indiscretion (which is covered up) but because he confesses his lack of confidence in his peers to the general public and concludes by admitting that revolution is the only way to achieve change and I cannot see Ron Davies ever saying that.

The real Gary Owen, then ? Like any artist, hes too complex to pigeonhole or reduce to agendas, but An Enemy for the People continues his exploration of lies and truth and the effect of duplicity on people and benefits from a fine production that is engaging, funny and provocative.

reviewer:
David Adams
Dario Fo-style absurdist satire
An Enemy for the People by Gary Owen
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venue
Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
August-02-06
Gary Owens new play was always going to be an eagerly-awaited event but this time the Welsh wunderkind (albeit a rather mature wunderkind) has also provoked controversy not about the style or the form of his new play but about the content.

Being critical through ridicule of those that govern, and of their ideology, has a long tradition and in theatre its a theme that we can find in various nations plays during the struggle for independence: in Wales the most controversial play ever is still Caradoc Evanss Taffy which in 1923 caused riots from the outraged London Welsh when it opened at the (ironically-named) Prince of Wales in the West End and its a play which helped to make its controversial and provocative author still despised in many quarters.

And Gary Owen shows here a hitherto unrevealed talent for Dario Fo-style absurdist satire, with in the first scene a government of a newly-devolved government somewhere on the edge of Europe discussing a ridiculous useless tank-trap project that could be sold to the electorate as public art, while it ends with them faced with 801 amendments from new members arguing only about the seating arrangements in the new parliament.

But I suspect there will be those who will see Gary Owen, like Caradoc Evans, as a traitor, though the very opposite may be true.

Why ? Not simply because his three politicians are all cynical, devious and ruthless but because he has the temerity to present a nation that is actually worse off because of devolution, a failed experiment because there are simply not enough people of high enough ability to run a country.

Enemy for the People is, of course, fiction, a play, and these are not real people and neither is the evidence real statistics. In fact not once are we told that this small nation is actually Wales: it could be Ruritania or Illyria. However audiences in Wales will be in no doubt that this is a satire on the ineffectualness of the Assembly, it is also a kind of meditation on power, truth and how to achieve real political change in a nation that has no recent history of self-government.

Yes, An Enemy for the People is an engaging, witty and generally well-acted political comedy that has a universality as well as a topicality rare in Welsh theatre. It deserves to be seen well beyond the border, and I am sure will be.

But just what is Gary Owen saying here ? His director, Adele Thomas, insists that the text throws up debates and that it is an impressionistic rather than realistic look at life after devolution. She speaks for many when she insists that it is not so much about Wales but about any small nation that has tried to break away from a larger central power (the nations of former Yugoslavia being most often quoted).

Debates about what ? Freedom and independence, and the confusion between those two ideas, or truth or compromise or democracy or politics ?

For theatregoers the title is all-important, with its prepositional variation on Ibsens An Enemy of the People. That literally minimal change immediately makes it all rather problematic, with its perplexing apparent self-contradiction.

Clearly this lies at the heart of the drama. Yet, it seems to me, it has hardly been resolved in discussions or in criticisms or even, perhaps, within the plays production itself.

What is the original, Enemy of the People, about ? A scientist discovers that the water supply of his town is contaminated; to reveal this would destroy the tourist trade on which the town depends; to fix it costs more than the town can afford; the scientist defies the press and the politicians and exposes the threat to public health and he finds himself and his family is ostracised.

What is Enemy for the People about ? A political leader of a newly-devolved nation discovers that under devolution things have got worse in every department; to admit this would mean people would lose confidence in the government and power would revert to the old capital; the minister calls for a referendum on independence, which he nominally opposes, but sets the electorate against him and his policies by telling the truth about the failures of the government; the vote is for independence and he finds himself ostracised.

Ibsen struggled with the question of truth and the absolutist dilemma: was it always the proper thing to do, to tell the truth ? The Wild Duck, which followed, suggests not. But An Enemy for the People would seem to be an argument for telling the truth regardless mainly because in this case broader humanity, as well as personal integrity, would suffer if the truth were concealed.

Dr Thomas Stockmanns principled idealism hardly chimes in with todays relativist world and we might think from our postmodernist perspective that his inflexible insistence on the truth is ultimately undemocratic: I would rather ruin my native town than see it flourishing upon a lie, the doctor says in his defence, having discovered that the towns water supply is contaminated but seeing his evidence suppressed by the corrupt liberal bourgeoisie, and his superiority alienates any potential supporters.

Terry (Rhodri Steffan) , the First Minister of the anonymous nation where An Enemy For the People is set, is no Dr Stockmann. He is duplicitous, morally ambiguous, pragmatic, elitist, sexist, obsequious, sexually dishonest, but also ultimately idealistic a politician, in other words. Hes in many ways likeable after all, hes a Talking Heads fan (David Byrne rather than Alan Bennett). Crucially he believes in an independent nation and has had to settle for a government with limited powers.

(And, lets be frank, this really is about Wales even if it could also be about various other new nations still with ties to their former rulers and maybe a little less obvious reference to Welsh politics would make the play better.)

What happens is that Terry suspects that this young government is doing rather less well than the hype suggested and so uncovers statistics that indicate that the people are in fact sicker, thicker and poorer as a result of devolution.

At the same time, more or less, he comes up with a strategy for getting an unwilling populace to vote for full independence: offer a referendum with a choice independence or continued support for a dominant power that sends their lads off to die in foreign wars. The politician Terry would presumably justify the devious tactic by saying that the end justifies the means,.

He has admitted to his attractive, ambitious, assistant, Sian (Claire Cage), herself a member of parliament (here meaning, I assume, an AM), that he is a closet gay.

He attacks the Old Labour eminence grise Glyn (Ifan Huw Lloydxxx) for being part of an organisation that squandered its inheritance, the peoples trust of the party, in what I felt was an important scene that didnt register as much as it should; this is Terry as the accountable elected politician bemoaning as many real younger Labour supporters do the ineptitude, corruption and complacency of the Labour Party in Wales.

Terrys next moves are, to me, confusing. But on them hang the plot and the point of the play.

He gives a tv speech in which he concedes that there is not enough native talent to run the country, in so doing committing political hara-kiri, of course. This seems to be truthful Terry again... or calculating Terry, since he is theoretically asking the electorate to vote against independence in the upcoming referendum. This speech, with his contempt for his fellow-countrymen is, I guess, a clear reference to Stockmanns offensive tirade in Ibsens original; Stockmann meant it, but we assume Terry is playing at being a Stockmann and deliberately ostracizing himself from society.

He finds himself in a homosexual honey-trap, during the course of which he repeats his contempt for his fellow-citizens (I hate my country, I really do, he says), and goes off with a male prostitute knowing he will be exposed by his party enemies - New Labour in the form of Sian, Old Labour in the form of the corrupt councillor, Glyn (Ifan Huw Lloyd) although the expos is not for his sexual indiscretion but for repeating his anti-patriotism.

While Terry has, we assume (but its not that clear), set himself up as a martyr for the cause of independence, he confesses in the last scene that he does actually hate his country, hate his people, because he wants them to be great and theyre not. He did it, he says, to set his people free free to think about why were alive.

We need the revolution that makes every single human life an adventure. And you could start it here, in our fearless, frightened country, says the defeated Terry.

Now I find this a curiously muddled romantic end to an often sharply-told, cynical story.

The referendum has resulted in a victory for independence what Terry wanted. But Terry himself ends up as a park-bench drunk, thrown out by his wife for his Ron Davies moment of madness, thrown out by his party for his attack on his nation. Sian is the new president of the republic with a very New Labour non-radical agenda.

Now I dont expect old-fashioned ideological arguments from the Cambridge-educated duo of Gary Owen and Adele Thomas, neither of whom, perhaps would have much truck with Stockmanns stubbornness; these are intelligent theatre-makers of the twenty-first century, where such arguments would be seen as reductionist and elitist and anti-democratic.

But I do still have problems with what the debates are about. Yes, questions are asked but I cant see where any debate would go.

Or have I just missed something ?

reviewer:
David Adams
The Greasy Pole
An Enemy for the People by Gary Owen
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venue
Chapter Arts Centre
September-15-06
This review first appeared in Planet Magazine and ius reproduced with their permission...

Gary Owen has an awful lot to say for himself. His new play, An Enemy for the People (a little twist on Ibsen, there) is an unashamed political assault on the current state of Welsh politics. A funny, well-written assault, but nonetheless one that takes no prisoners. Owen himself sets the scene in the blurb for the play:

In 1997 I hugged complete strangers on Borth beach when we won the referendum, and anything seemed possible in that brave new dawn. Skip ahead to 2003, and those fools down the Bay are arguing about where to sit. I have not forgotten: and now I will be revenged.

A policy statement if ever I read one. And you cant deny that Owen has a point several very good ones, in fact, that he makes with a light touch and a deal of humour. With just three characters, he creates a world of politics that is only too believable, referencing the well-known (and loved) scandal of Ron Davies, the speeches of Rhodri Morgan, the wasting of public money on large, useless items. Such as a retractable tank trap that tanks can just, er, drive around.

An Enemy for the People is set in the First Ministers office of an unnamed Principality, five years after its leash has been loosened from its larger, ruling neighbour. First Minister Terry initially appears to be the sharp, Blair-esque operator who is the friend of all; his parliamentary assistant Sian is an ambitious hero-worshipper, naive enough to have ideals but sharp enough to know how to follow her leader. Glyn, the caricature of Dinosaur Politics all tweedy bluff and rugby-voiced chauvinism is the loathsome centre of the party; the sort that keeps bouncing back no matter how idiotic and big-headed their actions. He is, frankly, all too recognisable.

With these archetypal politicians, Owen weaves a nice story of truth versus, well, truth. Its all a matter of how you spin the truth, and what you want it to achieve. As Terry fights for his countrys independence, he seems to veer off the rails; he tells the truth about himself as much as about his country and it destroys him, makes him an enemy of the people; at the same time it brings about his ultimate goal of full devolution. He emerges as a true lionheart, understanding that an enemy can rally as well as splinter a cause. He gives his people independence even if they dont actually understand what to do with it. The freedom to make things worse all by yourself, the play argues, is better than labouring under the success or mistakes of others.

Watching and learning, Sian becomes more blas as she navigates political waters, her principles apparently tarnishing under the weight of government. She ultimately betrays Terry with her truth, only to realise that she has been manipulated by him into doing it.
And Glyn, the lizard-eyed monster who represents the calcified liver of the party, the inertia of the country (not lack of movement, as he points out, but the inability to change course once the compass is set) he will do whatever it takes to keep himself nicely buffered from the sharp end. He is the inevitable survivor.

As a production, An Enemy for the People moves swiftly, yet also has that juggernaut feel that marks politics. The downfall of the First Minister is inevitable; once something is begun, its going to get finished and the audience is along for the ride. This has partly to do with the plot twist that Terry has been the engineer of his own demise which could have been a little more obscured, a little less guessable. The final scene where Terry explains all is arguably unnecessary, because its pretty obvious what hes been up to from the moment he gets that ah ha! look on his face half-way through. We know where hes going, and we know hes going to get there (and thats without reading the give-away blurb on the flyer).

Performances, though, are uniformly convincing. Claire Cages Sian is imbued with an irony and warmth that make her ultimate betrayal poignant; Ifan Huw Dafydd as Glyn is comical yet dangerously aggressive. Steffan Rhodris Terry is oddly sexless until the revelation comes that he is, in fact, secretly gay. He is almost too much the hero by the end considering his turn as sharp operator when the play opens but thats the plot and not the actor. We watch him become dishevelled, weary, honest, and ultimately successful in his goal.

The one odd note is struck by the brief appearance of Jonathon Floyd as a rent-boy; the truth-sayer who brings about Terrys demise. While hes a welcome note of honesty amongst all the politics and flagging principles, he also serves to highlight something that is slightly absent from the play an emotional core. You cant help but wonder if theres more to explore here, more to lift the play. An Enemy for the People may be political, but the things in between the political statements are equally enticing: the way Sian slips so easily into the little woman role, collecting Terrys dry cleaning and running errands for him, worshipping him; how sexuality is still a bastion of scandal; how chauvinism is expected and acceptable if you want to get on.

In the end, though, Owen delivers a piece of cynicism that is both enjoyable and crafted. For such a political play, it is deliberately accessible theres even an after-play debate on how to live scheduled for one of the evenings, complete with real ministers. It raises questions as well as laughs, and thats a lot more than can be said for your average day at the Welsh Assembly.
reviewer:
Alex Carolan
Skilful direction...
An Enemy for the People by Gary Owen
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venue
Chapter Cardiff
July-07-06
Gary Owens new play Enemy For The People, performed at Chapter Arts Centre from 11th to 15th July, is another huge step forward for one of Wales foremost playwrights. Set in the office of the First Minister of a small, semi-independent nation, this play is a call to arms that throws down an unashamed challenge to politicians and public alike. Packed with biting satire and pin-point comic dialogue, it is a must see for anybody that cares about how their country is governed or just enjoys new writing at its best.

Skilfully directed by Ruth is Stranger than Richards Adele Thomas, the cast of four were all impressive. Steffan Rhodris First Minister shone with the charm and sharpness of the modern politician, while Ifan Huw Dafydds Glyn was delightfully loathsome in his misogyny, arrogance and duplicity. Particular mention goes to Clare Cage, the First Ministers assistant who arguably has the furthest to travel as a character. Cages understated yet powerful performance helped to deliver this plays political message with aplomb.

The intimate in the round design allowed the audience to truly feel like flies on the wall, spying joyfully on the machinations of government. Whilst this may not have been the most comfortable seating arrangement for the audience, the theatrical experience more than made up for it.

The only obvious criticism of this production was the length of the run. A new play of this ambition should be seen by more people, and we can only hope that the company is able to secure funding for a tour or at least further performances at one or two other venues. Gary Owens latest work is not a play that deserves to be forgotten.
reviewer:
Chris Lambert

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