by John Galsworthy
Directed by Bertie Carvel
Designed by Robert Jones
Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday, 21st August 2016, 14.45
William Gaunt – John Anthony, Chairman of the Trenartha Tin Plates Works
Mark Quartely – Edgar Anthony, his son / Henry Rous
Julian Firth – Wilder, a director of the Trenartha company / Davies
Madhav Sharma – Scantelebury, a director of the Trenartha company / Lewis
Antony Bunsee – Wanklin, a director of the Trenartha company / Brown
Jason Cheater – Trench, company secretary of the Trenartha company / Evans
Rhys Meredith – Underwood, manager of the Trenartha Company / Jago
Michael Hodgson – Harness, a Trades Union Official
Ian Hughes – David Roberts, leader of the workers’ committee
Gwyn Vaughan Jones – Henry Thomas, the workers’ committee
Tomos Eames – Rous, the workers’ committee
Simon Holland Roberts – Bulgin, the workers’ committee
Lizzie Watts – Enid Underwood, wife of the manager, Underwood, daughter of John Anthony
Lucy Black – Annie Roberts, wife of David Roberts
Rosie Sheehy – Madge Thomas, daughter of Henry Thomas
Nicola Sloane – Frost, valet to John Anthony / Mrs Black
Trudy Jackson – Mrs Yeo
Louise Collins –Mrs Bulgin / Housemaid
Cameron Sutherland – Jan Thomas, Madge’s brother, aged 10
John Anthony, MD of Trenartha Tinplate Works (William Gaunt)
Galsworthy is best known for The Forsythe Saga, and for being a somewhat unlikely Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate in 1932. I donated a small pile of Galsworthy’s novels to the charity shop when my mum died, along with pristine copies of The Village School series by “Miss Reid”. She always had quotes marks round her name. In retrospect, I regret dumping the Village School. They’re collectable for their dust jackets. What I never knew was that early on Galsworthy was acclaimed as a playwright, nor had I heard of Strife his best known play, first performed in 1909.
Strife must have stood out in its day. No French windows, no drawing room repartee and a strong social theme. A tinplate works on the Welsh Border is on strike. The directors of the company are obdurate, as is the strike leader, Roberts. The women and children are starving. John Anthony’s fellow directors want compromise; David Roberts workmen want compromise, but both are stuck with intransigent, stubborn leaders.
Does it resonate? Well, for me, my Great Uncle Ben hovered on my shoulder cackling with glee. Uncle Ben grew up in Tredegar, South Wales. My grandad was a crane driver in a steel works, which he considered a major promotion from the mines. In 1910, just a year after Strife was in the West End, Churchill sent in troops to quell the Tonypandy strikers. Uncle Ben was in the General Strike of 1926. He was a bandy-legged diminutive man who walked the streets all day in his retirement. He’d turn up at our house unannounced and instruct me on how stubborn, uncompromising and evil Churchill was, always ending with the story of him sending troops against miners, and women and children. But Uncle Ben was even-handed. He was at school with Aneurin Bevan, Labour saint and founder of the National Health Service. According to Uncle Ben, as a schoolboy he’d steal anything that was not tied down. Ben carried the Times notice of Bevan’s will in his pocket, demanding how any cabinet minister could have left so much. I’ll admit this might go back to a personal dispute over a pencil. So Uncle Ben loathed right (Churchill the aggressive boss) and left (Bevan the unbending socialist), which in the guise of a tinplate factory on strike is pretty much what this play is about.
The play starts out with Radio 4 broadcasts on the Tata Steel closures at Port Talbot in 2016, while a great red hot iron plate rises from below the mirrored stage tiles, and rises smoking away, travels across the stage and descends to form a massive boardroom table. On the way we hear the voices of Margaret Thatcher on the miners’ strike, Harold Wilson … it’s all a five star opening from new director Bertie Carvel. Then we’re back to 1909 and the strike. A crucial point in history, as the new Liberal regime were about to introduce legislation on workers’ rights.
The Board: L to R: Edgar (Mark Quartely), Scantlebury (Madhav Sharma), John Anthony (William Gaunt, sitting), Wanklin (Anthony Bunsee, standing), Wilder (Julian Firth), Tench (Jason Cheater, sitting)
Galsworthy’s strength was character, and he creates some powerful ones here. The play begins with the Board of Directors in a meeting. John Anthony (William Gaunt), the founder of the firm, is in an antique wheelchair, silent through the start of the meeting, his cigar smoke stinking out the theatre. The others debate how to end the strike, and his first intervention is a low mutter. He’s barely paying attention, drifting away, … but gradually the old lion emerges and ruthlessly dominates the meeting. No compromise. Keep them down. Capitalism personified. They don’t make them like that anymore? Or do they just confine the shouting and bullying to the decks of their yachts bought on the pension funds?
David Roberts (Ian Hughes) and strikers as the snow falls
The other side is represented by David Roberts (Ian Hughes). Roberts is an engineer with a personal grudge … he was given £700 for a patent the firm made £100,000 out of. He is also a man of unbending will and unbending principle who will not budge, even though the women and children of the town are starving, particularly his own wife. He rang all the bells for me … smartly dressed, dapper, neat moustache. The 70s union leaders were often in this style … I’m thinking of Derek Hatton here, but also ones that I knew in the ELT teachers’ union. Being smartly dressed was such a marker … be taken seriously, don’t be patronised by bosses in Savile Row suits, perhaps. Notice that Roberts is a skilled man … the actual manual workers don’t dress like him. It’s basic Marx actually, the middle classes leading the revolution before being overthrown in turn.
The national union are represented by Harness (Michael Hodgson), and Harness is trying to solve the crisis. Harness is played perfectly, exactly the right touch as negotiator, manipulator, professional union man. I met a few of those too … I was a union rep myself. I still recall going on an official seminar on how to manipulate meetings (keep boring everyone with finicky points of order until the moderates go home to their families, then put in the really left wing points from the floor when only the hard liners remain). Yes, I knew these guys. But Harness is having a problem with the locals who won’t compromise either.
Madge Thomas (Rosie Sheehy) and Annie Roberts (Lucy Black)
In Act One, you might think, “What about the women?” though in union and management circles then (and much later), their absence represents reality. The best woman’s role goes to Enid Underwood (Lizzie Watts). She is John Anthony’s daughter, and married to Mr Underwood, the manager of the works. This is one of the roles which takes us away from what is frankly an overdose of ranting. In Act 2 (the first half here is Acts 1 and 2) she goes to visit her old maid, Annie, who is now Mrs Roberts and sickly and ill (Lucy Black). Enid is beautifully dressed, full of sympathy for the women and children, but reveals character when she visits the sick room and takes the only chair by right, leaving the invalid standing. She then summarily dismisses Madge Thomas (Rosie Sheehy), a striker’s wife, who she feels has no business there. Act 3 takes place in Enid’s home, and she has some wonderful lines on “The working class” who she has now lost sympathy with. Madge comes to report Mrs Roberts’ death, and has a great short diatribe at this point.
I have every sympathy … Enid Underwood (Lizzy Watts) with Annie Roberts (Lucy Black)
We have an excellent bunch of company directors … Wilder (Julian Firth) does most of the talking. Edgar (Mark Quartely) is John Anthony’s son, and speaks feelingly for the strikers. Scantlebury (Madhav Sharma) is bumbling, persuadable, and expresses mystified guilt, though Wanklin (Anthony Bunsee) is sure he’s not at fault. I thought for the first few minutes he was being addressed as Wanker, partly because Scantlebury seemed scatter-brained enough for Galsworthy making a point via names. In 1909, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been.
The final meeting: Union man Harness (Michael Hodgson) and the just-bereaved Roberts (Ian Hughes). The directors watch
The play has intrinsic faults. I don’t think Galsworthy gets the rhythm of Welsh English accents in the dialogue at all, though he did state that it took place on the borders of England and Wales. I’m not sure why, though Monmouthshire is now Gwent, South Wales, but was disputed over whether it was England or Wales in the past. It’s a very Welsh place. One fault is that Thomas, who has doubts … hang on, Doubting Thomas, maybe Galsworthy WAS pointing names … keeps saying “Look you.” That has heritage, as Shakespeare used it as a Welsh marker too. I’d say it was a Welsh marker in a sitcom only, but sounded forced in here. I’d have said to the actor Gwyn Vaughan-Jones (a Welsh name if ever there was one) “Galsworthy’s given you six “Look You” lines. Feel free to drop some.”
There’s a lot of monologue. Or ranting. Go back to my union seminar in the 1970s, and yes, there was always a lot of monologue in these situations. In the second part of Act 2 everyone in the cast has to play the crowd of strikers. In the first part of Act 2 we have five women’s roles. I guess that’s why we have a woman playing a male butler in Frost (Nicola Sloane). If Galsworthy wasn’t doubling up, he was getting his actors cheap, because there are a lot of “hanging about” parts with few lines, and he’s written seven women in, but only three (Enid, Annie Roberts, Madge) have a decent part. It’s inefficient on the page, though not here due to astute doubling. Though the actors found humour in the lines (particularly Enid) there’s very little indeed on the page to leaven it.
One criticism on blocking. With a 75% in the round stage, you need care. Mostly those actors hanging about watching were in the entrance ways. But from B22 and B23, the great final scene with Anthony and Roberts was obscured by the back of a watching actor (I think the company secretary, Tench). Other seats were equally blocked. We couldn’t see William Gaunt at all and only got glimpses of Ian Hughes. Their opposing performances were so good you want to see every nuance.
Act 2, Scene 2. The strikers in the snow
Set design with that glowing bar of iron / table, mirrored steel floor, mirrored steel backdrop reflecting the audience is brilliant. Add that leather and wood wheelchair for William Gaunt. It’s an ideal prop, obviously ornate, a wheelchair of the very wealthy. It almost deserves its own credit. Stage management at shifting it all around is excellent. As with First Light the attention to costume detail is exemplary. I noticed Edgar’s shirt, with overlong sleeves held in place with silver armbands. That was standard for 1909 shirts. One arm length. XXL. Use armbands. The coarser cloth of Roberts smart suit was another.
It’s an excellent directorial debut for Bertie Carvell. The sudden burst of violence at the end of the strike meeting, taken in constantly falling snow was a highpoint … and the interval. I’d say the superb acting and direction here are superior to the Galsworthy text, which explains why it’s rarely done. Everything from the cast, director, costume, set design hints at four or five star. It is also instructive to find a voice from 106 years ago reflecting so clearly on what is happening now. The problem of stubborn mule like inability to compromise by both sides in an industrial dispute is relevant in 2016 Chichester, Sussex, with the Southern Rail dispute dragging on and ever on. Even more so, all these heels dug in reflect on the Syrian situation. Galsworthy does resolve it here. No plot spoiler.
In the end though, with all this effort, there are better plays than Strife to expend the energy on, so three stars.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAY
Sam Marlowe, The Times ***
Tom Wicker, The Telegraph ***
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
Clare Brennan, The Observer ****
LINKED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Macbeth 2013, , Trafalgar Studios (Malcolm)