Putting working-class voices centre stage

Submitted by Matthew on 13 March, 2013 - 11:02

On 14 March, a short play I wrote about the 1974 Clay Cross rents dispute (where the Labour council, backed by a strong labour movement campaign, refused to implement a Tory act increasing council rents) will have a reading (i.e. a rehearsed, but not full, performance) as part of a new writing festival at the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield. The play is called The Rest of the Cod (trust me, the title makes sense in context...)

The script is based around interviews, Hansard proceedings, film footage and other sources. I’ve been grappling with whether or not to describe it as verbatim theatre, but I don’t think it is.

Verbatim theatre takes word-for-word testimony from participants in a particular series of events. At its fullest, it takes the form of some of the ”tribunal plays” done at the Tricycle Theatre in recent years. These took the words of public inquiries into the theatre. The most high profile — The Colour of Justice — was based on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and productions were also done based on the Hutton Inquiry into the Iraq War and the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

Other plays mix verbatim material with scenes created from the imagination of the writer. This was the approach taken by Tanika Gupta in Gladiator Games, her play about the racist murder of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offenders Institution in 2000. This is the approach I decided to take to Clay Cross. It allows some creative freedom, whereas just rearranging source material into some theatrical scenes can feel a lot like writing an essay.

But it has its own pitfalls too. Once a writer mixes their own words with the actual words of others — what if people confuse the voices? What if the writer puts a line in a character’s mouth that the audience assumes comes from the verbatim material?

To get around this, I’ve cheekily fictionalised the Clay Cross councillors themselves, and kept most of the strictly verbatim material in the mouths of MPs and judges. This is also a way of counterposing the pronouncements of “high politics” to what was actually going on in people’s lives on the ground. I hope it works.

Of course the play is political and has a political resonance. I wanted to get away from the attitude towards history so prevalent on the left which is a sort of crude examining of X event in order to draw some “lessons for today.” Hopefully anyone seeing the play will be able to draw any contrasts between the Clay Cross councillors and current local governments’ rolling over when faced with Tory cuts, without having it shoved down their throats. I wanted to take that episode of working class history on its own terms. Again, I hope it works.

Political theatre can be tricky like that. It lays itself open to criticism as “preachy” or “dogmatic,” espeically if it is left-wing. The thing is, I’ve seen plenty of liberal theatre that’s preachy and dogmatic. Its message is usually along the lines of “All this technology we’re using in our lives, eh? Are we really any more connected to each other? What’s that about?” Or, even worse, “Look at these lives we’re leading, aren’t we all really decadent while so much horrible stuff is going on elsewhere in the world?”

There are human stories at the heart of big political events, just as much as there are at the kitchen sink or between an arguing couple placed in a black box theatre. Even if political plays like mine are not character-driven, hopefully the characters will not be two-dimensional.

Recently we have seen the incredibly popular two-handed version of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which has been playing to packed audiences around the country. The same company is working on a play about the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

There are loads of directions left-wing theatre can go in to re-examine episodes of working-class history and culture, as well as to interpret things that are happening now. I was very much making a process up as I went along with this play, because it’s one of the first I’ve written. I’ve learned that an important attitude in making theatre is: do-it-yourself. In future I’d like union branches and community groups to be able to use the script to have a reading, performance, or political discussion as they see fit.

That’s if the rights to it aren’t bought up to turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster, with Anthony Hopkins as Ted Heath. I’m not holding my breath.

• Follow Edd on Twitter at @ejmustill

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