Sacha Ismail reviews a play about the general strike, produced by New Factory of the Eccentric Actor.
A couple of months ago I went to see a play at the Globe Theatre about the Chartists, called Holding Fire! It was disappointing despite some interesting elements and the basic thrill of seeing one of the major dramas of British working-class history acted out on stage.
On 22 September, I got a similar thrill, but much more satisfaction and lasting enjoyment, from a play at Conway Hall about the 1926 General Strike.
The play was free, clearly attempting to match its appeal to its message by opening up to low-income, activist and perhaps not-usually theatre-going people like myself. (As to whether they succeeded, I’m not sure: the audience seemed fairly mixed, but we didn’t sell many copies of Soldarity at the end!) This is because the “New Factory of the Eccentric Actor”, which produced it, is a consciously political and leftist troupe whose next play Heroines of Revolution, for instance, is about the Russian Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai.
The producer-actors’ political commitment was evident in every scene. There seems to be a tendency in theatre and television to present historical class struggles as simply a stormy/colourful background against which working-class characters ignorantly play out their — inevitable — fate. This play, by contrast, presented the British working class as struggling, thinking, arguing political actors, defeated because their movement was led by cowards and collaborators and not because we automatically “always lose”.
Thus we have scenes not only at 10 Downing Street and the TUC General Council, but on picket lines, workers’ demonstations and in the local “Councils of Action” which in some places started to assume soviet-like characteristics during the course of the strike. And in these settings the characters to a certain extent argue out their political differences, with mention of the Independent Labour Party, Communist Party, National Minority Movement and so on. The writers were well enough informed to make Shapurji Saklatvala, the now little-known Communist MP for Battersea who was the first person to be arrested during the strike, a fairly important character. (The producers also hint at political sympathies by having Harry Wicks, later one of the first British Trotskyists, as a CP speaker at a rally.)
My criticism would be that this refreshing emphasis on politics was not always taken far enough. There were some very moving scenes about the support the strike received from workers in the Soviet Union (support which the British trade union leaders, afraid of looking “red” in front of public opinion, turned down!) But there was nothing about the negative role the growing Soviet bureaucracy, through its uncritical relationship with the TUC leaders through the Anglo-Russian Committee, played in helping the TUC demobilise the strike — and the role this defeat played in helping consolidate Stalinism.
On the whole though, the play was a good introduction to the General Strike. In addition, it was extremely well staged. In fact, there was no stage as such, with no chairs and much of the action taking place in the middle of the (standing) audience. Cleverly, while the picket lines, demos etc took place in this setting, what would normally be the stage was used for the meetings of the TUC General Council, while the government met high above in the gallery. The wheeling, varied action meant that standing up for more than two and a half hours didn’t seem long at all.
At the end, one of the actors read out words from a striker who is still alive, explaining the hatred she still feels for the rail workers’ leader Jimmy Thomas, who after helping to undermine the strike went on to become a right-wing politician in the 1930s.
The message was hammered home that we will not always lose, but that we need to remake the labour movement if we are to avoid losing when struggles like 1926 happen again. It is an important message after twenty years of defeat has brought us a labour movement led by the likes of Dave Prentis and Tony Woodley.
• Heroines of Revolution will be playing on Friday 26, Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 October. For more information, call 020 7586 4633.