FringeReview UK 2016
The Minerva Theatre production of John Galsworthy’s 1909 Strife, marks Bertie Carvel makes his debut as director. The most breathtaking opening for some time about a play centred around a tin-mine strike in Wales, is facilitated by Robert Jones’ design with sound by Fergus O’Hare.
Bertie Carvel makes his debut as director with this Minerva Theatre production of John Galsworthy’s 1909 Strife, like all his plays absurdly neglected. The most breathtaking opening for some time about a paly centred around a tin-mine strike in Wales, is facilitated by Robert Jones’ design with sound by Fergus O’Hare.
To a Today announcement of indeed today’s date we’re scrolled chronologically back from obvious parallels with Tata Steel through Thatcher, nationalisation to Gaumont and various antique sound-bites as men manoeuvre a massive suspended ingot of red hot tin with hawsers down onto plinths. The heat subsides, the dimness lifts and it’s a Board table with very 1909 board members arraigned around it. It’s one of the finest visual coups I’ve seen and could never have been mounted in the pros-arch productions Strife must have previously had. In the Minerva’s intimate space the effect’s literally glowing.
Very differently from what you might expect, Galsworthy – himself an active socialist – skews the three-cornered argument differently and personally. The union’s not the problem: they’re the ACAS of their day, refusing to support the strike till some of the demands led by leader David Roberts are dropped. He’s the disgruntled and ‘swindled’ engineer (paid £700 for a design that earned the company £100,000). It’s personal and Ian Hughes contains his ferocity till he needs it, in a glowering performance of reined anger, un-reined rhetoric and squaring-up to the one man he respects, his sworn enemy.
This is Chair John Anthony who alone of the Board refuses to concede any demands whatever. Roberts relies on this, he divines his salvation lies in crushing Anthony who founded the company and tyrannizes it still, having saved it and seen off four strikes. William Gaunt frames a toweringly bent performance, conjuring a perilous Pisa leaning, enacting iron will and fragile health – he’s wheeled on in a Bath chair but rises perilously from it – with the physical antimony of steely (dare one say) intransigence. Even from him this is something special.
It’s the cost Galsworthy explores, first with well-fed voices – son Edgar Anthony chief amongst dissenters grows slowly to stature, Madhav Sharma’s Scantlebury blusters from start to finish, Antony Bunsee’s Wanklin physically embodies a hawk-like pragmatism. Nicola Sloane’s role as butler Frost seems a striking choice (she’s later the sexually, politically provoking Mrs Rous).
It’s after the opening act now exclusively amongst women that the cracks in the dialectical metal show, and the women point them up. In an all-female scene Lucy Black’s frail Annie Roberts refuses all help from Anthony’s married daughter Enid Underwood – Lizzy Watts in a finely judged turn even if her voice doesn’t quite project the period. Watts embodies a traditionally liberal go-gooding type who here suddenly hardens, losing sympathy for Roberts when confronted too by women who disdain her help to Annie, dying of a weak heart. We know where this might normally tend. Galsworthy though refuses easy sympathies, even refusals of sympathy, making Mrs Rous a mocking sexy termagant who scants Mrs Underwood’s motives and forces her husband to abandon Roberts.
A rowdy climactic meeting in falling snow unleashes the full violence of the title, indeed it ends in a free-for-all fist-fight, but not before the swayings to-and-fro of Roberts’ blazing rhetoric, and Henry Thomas’ bleating of Chapel middle ground nambyism – Gwyn Vaughan Jones especially effective as preacher out of his comfort zone. It’s a thrilling enactment of genuine dramatic conflict and it must have shocked the first audience as it still does with astonishing relevance. A Times reviewer then regarded the play as rendering ‘a public service’. That praise stands now.
Stark revelations speed us to the finale back at the board meeting – that table’s also been the ramp for rhetoric just previously – and the play between Board members, Mrs Underwood’s desperate care for her father and the final crushing moments, both tender and utterly unexpected, make this play something more than even a great Ibsenite snapshot of tragic intransigence. It’s a humane exploration worthy to stand by that other neglected industrial masterpiece, Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford & Son of 1912. From design to key performances, this is an outstanding and revelatory production of an outstanding play. Its relevance moves beyond even the tortured steel industry of today’s Wales or Britain to other professions undergoing exploitation, conflict of interest and barbaric intervention.