Edinburgh Fringe 2011
A rarity on the fringe, Dust is a beautifully written and powerful play with an excellent ensemble cast. Gradually revealing the consequences of a single incident from the miner’s strike nearly thirty years ago, it skilfully evokes the decades of pain among shattered communities and resonates with our current social troubles.
Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers during the ill-fated 1984/5 strike, stands downstage left stiffly giving a speech echoing his hero Arthur James Cook, the miners’ leader during the ill-fated 1926 General Strike, who begins downstage right, but paces panther-like across the front of the drawing room set. Their words blend seemlessly.
The opening promises what you might expect from a play called Dust, whose poster features a dirty-faced Scargill in miner’s hat and donkey-jacket and the slogan "It’s the morning of Margaret Thatcher’s death". But what follows is not some heavy-handed agitprop rose-tinted vision of past glory days of a socialism that never was.
The next scene seems to owe much more to TV sitcom or some well-made play from the 1960s, as an older and more filled-out Scargill, his antagonism and bluster having long given way to contentment and self-satisfaction, discusses with his publisher, Barbara, the need (in her view) to sex-up his new biography of his hero A J Cook. When news comes on his laptop screen that his erstwhile nemesis Margaret Thatcher has finally croaked, there is no quantum gear-shift, either in the characters’ reactions or in the arc of the play.
If it wasn’t for the scenes of burning buildings on the front page of the Guardian – today’s – which Barbara is reading, one might begin to fear that this play had been deceptively marketed as topical historical when in fact it’s going to be comical domestical geriatrical. (This being the Edinburgh fringe I even wondered if they were going to start singing.)
The scene shifts to a young couple, she pregnant, he only a little concerned that council cuts to the number of social workers means that he has to reapply for his own job. But he’s good at his job, so all will be well, they think. Well, that hints at being topical, but it’s still not edgy.
But the writing is witty and the performances are all assured, so give it time. To be honest, it’s a relief to be in Edinburgh and know that for the next hour and a bit you’re safely watching a proper play performed by good actors, and not some hyped-to-the-heavens internationally-acclaimed tick-the-trendy-boxes avant-garde shite.
When Lawrence, an old Doncaster miner acquaintance of Arthur’s arrives, with his rough presence and his bottle of vodka, the danger is not immediately apparent. Again one wonders exactly what genre of play we are watching. Is this stranger with his undercurrent of menace Ortonesque or Pinteresque? Just where will this go? And what is the secret which binds all these characters together?
The answer, when it comes, is a heart-wrenching story of one incident, just one example of thousands of personal tragedies played out in mining communities thirty years ago, one story of lives disrupted or destroyed, with consequences echoing down the years to today.
I must confess I knew nothing of the writer/director, Ade Morris, before seeing this play but now I want to shout his name from the rooftops. His writing is sublime – both in the wit of the dialogue, the reserve with which he tackles emotive speeches, and in his total command of both historical exposition and narrative arc. As a director he trusts the actors to tell the story, with few stagey tricks, just bloody good pacing and beautifully understated emotional pitch.
And he has chosen and is served by a superb ensemble. Stewart Howson as Lawrence is moving and passionate, Lucinda Curtis shows a total mastery of dignified comic timing (she could easily star in a long-running TV sitcom) but she is also utterly believable in the moments of tragic realisation, John Sackville is also a highly versatile and powerful actor in his two roles as Chris and as A J Cook (I wish I had seen his Hamlet) and Alice Bernard, a relative newcomer, does well in the smaller role of Maggie. Michael Strobel has the almost impossible task of playing Arthur Scargill, a complex man with a strange charisma, who always seemed marked for a tragic fall but somehow just faded into obscurity. I must admit I never saw on stage the Scargill I saw in Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1984, but that didn’t really matter. The play isn’t really about the real Scargill, and an impression would only have jarred. Strobel comes across as (and I’m sure he probably is) a much more likeable man than his nominal character. It’s a shame in a way to have to spend a few sentences on making a comparison between the historical character and the actor playing him, because it detracts a little from an appreciation of the cast as an ensemble, so to summarise: Mr Strobel’s performance was accomplished and generous and served the piece perfectly.
Like some ancient slag heap, Ade Morris’s Dust burns slowly deep inside and when it shifts, the avalanche also develops gradually and unstoppably and is utterly overwhelming. When the applause stopped, I suddenly found myself sobbing. For the last two days there had been riots in London and other English cities, and in the media and social media the arguments have raged with conservatives and liberals predictably blaming each other for the disintegration of society. If, like me, you are on the left and lived through the miner’s strike, this powerful evocation of the social impact of Thatcher’s triumphant assault on the industrial working class and dramatic illustration of how the repercussions are all around us today, may leave you feeling as despondent as we did after the defeat of 1985.
And that is the power of theatre at it’s very best. Whether it confirms or challenges values you already hold, if you leave the theatre and walk into the streets with your eyes and heart opened and streaming, you know you’ve seen a five star show.