Rod’s Blog 09.05.14
The legacy of the 1984-5 miner’s strike.
“’From the start it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people … it needs no other passport than fun’ – Brecht
For the last two years Red Ladder Theatre Company has been building a relationship with Unite the Union to support the union’s work in education. Our performances bring comrades together and provoke discussion and debate while entertaining. ‘Wrong ‘Un’, our one woman musical about a working class mill worker who goes to London in 1913 to take direct action with the suffragettes, has been performed for Unite members all over England at branch meetings and conferences as well as at the 2013 Durham Miner’s Gala. This year we have been commissioned to make a piece of theatre about the miner’s strike to be performed at Durham and then to tour across the UK to colliery communities playing in miner’s welfare clubs and some theatres.
Boff Whalley, the writer of ‘Wrong ‘Un’ has been commissioned to write the new play. Boff was once one of the founding members of the anarchist pop group Chumbawamba and, as well as a playwright, is a genius song writer. The Chumbas always excelled in creating songs with beautiful melodies but with razor sharp political lyrics. The brilliance of this meant you found yourself singing a catchy tune which was actually about the way the Stasi in East Germany suppressed music, or a thinly veiled attack on hypocrite politicians (no-one was safe…New Labour were as likely to be savaged as any of the obvious targets on the Right). Boff is the perfect playwright for Red Ladder. He wants to write plays that are entertaining first and political second – what the great John McGrath from the Scottish socialist company 7:84 called a “good night out”. Theatre is only going to agitate when it doesn’t preach.
When we approached Boff about writing a play to commemorate the miner’s strike his first reaction was to avoid the obvious stories about pickets, scabs and police battles. Instead, Boff insisted the play should be a comedy and that audiences come out of the show feeling uplifted and hopeful – more than that, they should feel determined to fight harder than ever. ‘We’re Not Going Back’ is a musical comedy about three sisters in an imaginary Yorkshire pit village. There are no men in the play – it looks at the way women of all generations pulled together and joined Women Against Pit Closures. It could be argued that the solidarity of women in the communities helped to keep the strike strong for the twelve months. When Boff and I met women who had been part of WAPC they were adamant that although the strike created very deep rifts in many communities – it also brought people together. It also changed many women’s lives totally. Women suddenly found they were able to challenge some of the more misogynistic traditions and they had a voice – a political voice. Women who had never made speeches in public suddenly found themselves speaking to halls of hundreds of comrades, students in student unions, or women in other industries. After the strike ended, the thought of going back to their previous lives as miner’s wives was too much of a retrograde step – and so Boff’s title for the play is ‘We’re Not Going Back’.
Time and time again, women told us that the year of the strike was the ‘best year of our lives’. Faced with a state determined to destroy the communities they had grown up in and had families in, the women forged life-long friendships – often with women in support groups from outside their region. Boff and I met a group of women and their Leeds-based support group who were reunited by our research. They told us some really hilarious stories – all of which are now scenes in the play. It was a poignant reminder that when communities are placed under stress then people unite and become a force.
Making a piece of theatre about a time of struggle is important work. To quote Brecht again, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. We are making this piece of work to help galvanise people not in an act of nostalgia but to provoke us all to discuss the legacy of the miner’s strike. Big questions need to be raised. Was the strike just about coal or was it an attempt by organised workers to resist the move towards neo-liberalism? Had the miner’s defeated Thatcher would this have slowed the rush to corporate capitalism? What do we learn about taking on the State in this way – when the police are used as a national force for control to crush dissent – how will we respond in the future? It is well known that the closure of pits destroyed colliery communities and the wounds left by this are still sore thirty years later. A comedy musical about women in this struggle could be seen as an insensitive spoof and we are being careful to make sure that the piece opens up dialogue and gives people the opportunity to be entertained but also talk positively about the future. For forty six years Red Ladder has used theatre to bring people together in a space as a catalyst for healthy debate. We are not interested in heritage theatre which just commemorates the past – we have to learn from previous struggles, then organise so that the fight goes on.
‘We’re Not Going Back’ will open at this year’s Durham Miner’s Gala – the 130th Big Meeting. We will perform the show at Redhills, the Durham Miner’s Association headquarters with a premiere for the Unite political school on July 10th and then a full public performance on July 11th. After that the show goes on tour in September and October playing miners welfare halls and small theatres in Yorkshire, South Wales, the north east of England and Bathgate in Scotland.
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.