Strife is a play that made me feel angry inside, riled me up and made me feel I want to change the world.  (Not that I will affect so much as a pin of course, which rightfully makes me feel depressed about my pathetic self, but anyway.)  I also found it almost unbearably poignant at times and I was surprised to find that my heart kept breaking such that I couldn’t stop leaking tears.  This isn’t a review because all I can do is spew thoughts.  I’m no orator ;).  Understatement of the century!  That said, here goes…

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We’re comfortably sat in the lovely Minerva Theatre which holds not a seat which doesn’t have a wonderful view of the stage.  I am just thinking how unwise it was of me to reply to the comment of the lady next-but-one, who mentioned how the seat between us was one of the only empty in the auditorium with “Oh, that one’s for my imaginary friend!”  Don’t say things like that to strangers, self.  Did she find it weird?  Then I’m thinking, did she want to move into that seat, and now I replied like that, can she not do it?  I am all of a bewilder, when…

We’re plunged into sudden darkness and a glowing slab of seemingly molten metal rises on chains from a pit of smoke which billows across the steel-lined floor of the stage.  Light and smoke combine to make the metal floor seem momentarily liquidized too.  The huge slab rises and hovers, ominous and imposing, before settling to become the tabletop in the boardroom around which much of Strife will take place: that forged by the steel-workers made a literal foundation which the board members preside over.  Throughout the play this metal is used in other situations too, from which similar metaphors could be drawn – as a plinth from which steelworkers each make impassioned speeches and it sometimes remains on stage: boardroom in the background when the action moves.  A second sheet of steel, on one side like a mirror, on the other, tarnished is also used, for one example, the tarnished side as a monolith behind the women, the backdrop to their lives.

Alongside orange-glowy-steel’s venture, steel-talk through the years* gradually takes us back in time until the table is formed and here we are, in 1909.  (That rhymed. Hmm.)  There hasn’t been an actor on the stage yet, nor a word of plot spoken, but I am already far away from the world I was in, imagining my imaginary friend.  It’s a shock to be thrown into sudden dark and your senses then assaulted.  This expressionist** opening to the play is very effective in drawing you away from your world, into its, making you feel in a way other non-verbal art might.

As the programme informs, Strife “takes place on 7th February 1909 between the hours of noon and six in the afternoon, close to the Trenartha Tinplate Works, on the border of England and Wales, where a strike has been in progress throughout the winter.”  The battle is Board versus Workers, whose Union has even withdrawn their support, requesting compromise from both parties.  More specifically, the battle of wills is between John Anthony: The Big Boss and David Roberts (they both have such ordinary names!) an Engineer and the leader of the men who seeks true reform.  Both men are hewn from the same steel (eh!  Iron-cored!  What other analogies can I make?!) in the sense that they are both stubborn and steadfastly adhere to their own principles.  Anthony articulates his understanding of this and though I feel Roberts would be loath to admit it, he surely feels it too, by the end of the day at least.  Nothing will sway them from the belief in the rightness of their cause, nor is any cost too great.

Anthony has total command.  He is old and weakening, wheelchair bound, yet barely needs to murmur for his will to be obeyed.  Board members speak their minds quite freely, but Anthony follows only his own will, propelled by his unwavering belief that he should do what he always has.  At his most still, you’re still drawn to William Gaunt’s presence.  In fact, subsequently to writing these thoughts I watched Strife again and on second watch I often found it difficult to drag my eyes from Anthony even when he was only in the background, listening (or not listening!) to the others.  With the quietest utterance or smallest look, Anthony exudes power and when he draws himself from his chair near the end of his reign, he makes his final speech a last roar.

Ian Hughes as Roberts is impassioned and full of the fire of his conviction and to effect change.  Roberts has given up more than anyone and will have his way and he has the words and determination to get it.  Unfortunately, though his words lead his men, it is not enough when the steel of Roberts meets the steel of Anthony.  There is a particular speech Roberts gives towards the end of the first half of the play that truly encapsulates what kind of a man this is, and I suppose I felt also what he has the potential to be.  A man with such thoughts, such conviction and such a way of expressing himself is (or should I say, should be) a leader in a larger sense than he is able to be here, within the confines of his life.  This is not good versus evil though.  If anything, I felt from this play that principles are entirely separate to whether a person is good or not.  Roberts is willing to not only make personal sacrifice to achieve his aims: he will sacrifice anything and anyone else as well (as will Anthony.)  To be right, or even just unwavering is not to be kind or nice.

One thing I love about the play is that there is a vast array of viewpoints.  No two characters feel quite the same, and there are too many characters’ feelings and opinions we get to hear to discuss them all here.  While I cannot imagine there is anyone in the audience who doesn’t side with Roberts in the main battle, every character speaks with logic according to their own perspective.  There is no irrationality here.  There’s prejudice, ignorance, lack of empathy, lack of foresight, but not lack of logic.

One of my favourite aspects of Strife was the women.  I love how John Galsworthy writes women and how they are presented here.  Thank you, Mr Galsworthy, Mr Carvel and every wonderful actress in Strife.  The female characters in the play are all nuanced and powerful in their very different ways.  Although we also have a full range of characterisation in the men, the women are each essentially alone so must fight as individuals and they tend to show more understanding of the concept of and need for compromise (not that I think this play really says that compromise is good might I add): from Enid Underwood (Lizzy Watts) the daughter of privilege who wants to help and fight against injustice, but sees not how and is swayed both by feeling personally affronted by those she wanted to help, and by care and concern for her Father; through the angry, strong, potential reformer herself in terms of how she sticks to and articulates her ideals – Madge Thomas (Rosie Sheehy.)  For me, barring the extremely evocative opening sequence, the play really comes alive emotionally when we first encounter the majority of the women – the wives and family of steelworkers.  As with the men, there are a wide variety of natures on display, but now I would like to take some time to talk about Annie.

I don’t know if Annie Roberts is supposed to be the beating heart of the play, but she surely was for me.  Upon knowing the general theme of Strife, I did not anticipate it to be an overly moving play.  How wrong could I be?  I was streaming tears and even when Annie was not on the stage, events and things other characters said kept making me think of her.  And, though it could have been her story that moved me, for it is moving, it was not this that kept choking me up, but her very essence.  I completely adored how Strife conveyed who Annie is – both in terms of the beautiful work of actress Lucy Black, and in terms of the way her scenes are designed to convey everything about her very soul and who this lady is.  Just thinking about her now is making me feel upset.

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We are introduced to Annie Roberts (David’s wife) dwarfed beneath a steel monolith, her shadow blazed against it as we feel her frailty and struggle before the play tackles it.  Annie’s nature is kind and gentle.  She understands her husband’s cause and, tragically, she also understands her personal sacrifice.  The sacrifices Roberts has imposed upon Annie did not begin merely with this strike.  Roberts’ principles dictated that it would be wrong to bring a child into this world.  A thing we, and indeed Annie can understand.  We can’t deem him wrong, for a child’s sake – it is not the world for such.  Roberts certainly does not come across as desiring a child at all anyway and in fact when he encounters a boy he seems very uncomfortable.  Yet Annie holds this gaping void of the lack of a child within herself.  Her yearning is utterly heartbreaking.  And the agonizing way the play expresses what this absence means to Annie, juxtaposed with her own pure kindness is utterly unbearable.   You know Annie is not the kind of person who would ever have voiced her sorrow.  And through staging, lighting, acting and other elements than the mere text of the play, as an audience we feel this from her.  But nobody actually there sees (or wants to see) it.  There’s some beautiful use of a young boy (Cameron Sutherland) who plays Jan Thomas, but also (I hope it was the same boy now – sorry if not!) at another point seems to play an imagined child of Annie’s.   My heart broke so much for her that so often after this point in the play, Annie kept popping back into my head, sometimes for obvious, and sometimes for the tiniest of reasons and my heart would break all over again.

Annie is ill and other characters express concern for her, yet Annie herself is the one who is always genuinely worried for others.  Will this person sit?  How Annie understands the anger of the lady who opposes her husband and in so doing opposes all Annie has sacrificed.  Will Enid sit and have tea?  Has her husband eaten?…  Other people try to help Annie, which she can’t accept as she stands with her husband entirely.  But where others try to help Annie, in a way to help ease their own guilt, little things give away that they don’t care enough.  Annie will accept nothing for herself, but is giving in every aspect of who she is.  She holds no resentment or ill will towards her husband or anyone for what she has to endure and is with Roberts entirely in his cause.  That Annie is the character who suffers most is both inevitable and a true tragedy.  That Roberts’ principles let his wife suffer so terribly is something which it is impossible to not be bothered by.  It is as though his principles are really his child, the thing he hopes is his legacy to future generations.  Roberts speaks to this effect: that what he is doing now is for those that will come after and he cannot connect with his own wife on the deep level he does with the heart of who he is.  I wonder how he thinks about this beyond what the play shows…  Roberts made me think about what principles really are and how they are not necessarily related to morals.

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Another beautiful moment in design of the play comes during the aforementioned speeches by the steelworkers.  As spoken of, the workers take to the steel plinth to speak, whilst it snows upon them and the wall of the theatre behind, which had just looked vaguely steely too until now, suddenly (although it is still the same wall!  How is it possible!?  Applause for the incredible lighting in this play!) becomes a beautiful snow-laden-sunset of a sky.  I guess it really is a sunset in a figurative sense too at this point.  😦

I can’t find a more appropriate place to say it, but I also wanted to mention Frost, the butler (played by Nicola Sloane, who also plays Mrs Rous) who brings both delightful knowingness and such balance between etiquette and expressing opinion I found it a wry little joy to watch amidst the seriousness of the play.

In the end, compromise (in a way that feels rather futile) wins the day, at the expense of both pinions of principle.  I couldn’t help feeling if the men had just stuck with Roberts a few hours longer that all of their demands might have been granted.  I suppose, given that Roberts’ position of power is at this stage also gone, some might imagine the opposite scenario, on the side on Anthony?  Or at least, perhaps they may have done in Galsworthy’s day?  And despite siding with Roberts, as both men are left alone, I felt for them both.  They finally make a fleeting but poignant acknowledgement of each other here.  Both, I felt, in terms of respect and due to the fact that both men needed the other for their cause and their aims failed in the main because the other man was brought down.

But there’s a bigger picture here: yes, these kind of workforce battles are certainly relevant and still taking place today of course [and maybe we should stop and empathise as we do in this play more often than we may bother to even think about them in life?] but in a general sense, there is not justice and equality now and we are over a hundred years on from when this play is set.  The play, as I say, made me want to change the world.  It felt hard for me to reconcile the fact that it was written so long ago, yet we don’t feel far away from this world now still at all.  In any case, those at the top in the most part seem to only care about those below if there is some gain for them to me.  And whatever our own position, we’re all guilty at times I think of looking away rather than fighting any fight.  From the specifics of this play, I saw the sacrifice it took to even attempt to affect change.  I’m not sure in our current times there are many who would be prepared to sacrifice in this way.  Nor do I see why such sacrifice ought to be required for mere justice and equality.

How is it that we can live in a society that is still so unbalanced now?  Roberts says this in his speech against Capitalism:

“They’re welcome to the worst that can happen to me, to the worst that can happen to us all, aren’t they?  If we can shake that white-faced monster with the bloody lips, that has sucked the life out of ourselves, our wives and our children, since the world began.

If we have not the hearts of men to stand against it breast to breast, and eye to eye, and force it backward till it cry for mercy, it will go on sucking life; and we shall stay for ever what we are, less than the very dogs.”

But in reality, will we ever escape Capitalism’s jaws?  Well, a lovely, jolly ending for you there!  But as I stated at the start I shall make my true end: Strife is a play that got under my skin enough that it shook me into wishing I could change the very fabric of society.  I don’t think you can say such of too many plays.

Strife runs at Minvera Theatre, Chichester until 10th September 2016.  If you haven’t been put off by my rambling pretty much the entire play at you, nab your tickets here https://www.cft.org.uk/whats-on/event/strife!

PS At the end, when both Anthony and Roberts are left bereft, is there a really high pitched wail in the soundscape?…. Or was it the noise inside my head!?!  Panic!  I hope it was a real noise and not my mind and soul exploding, but…?
PPS I hope you don’t all think I am a sentimental fool that Annie got to me so much.  Of course Roberts’ plight is very moving.  And many steelworkers and boardroom members have much of interest to say (as a very tiny note here, one actor in the play (Tomos Eames) was in another play I saw up in Liverpool – Land of Our Fathers.  I didn’t write about it here, but if that play ever comes your way I urge you to go watch and I feel it an apt play to mention here too…) Actually, I don’t care what you think of me to be honest!  Life is both too little and too big to be concerned with such!
* Apologies for my ignorance.  I’d be googling steel information were I to try to discover where all of these clips were from precisely and I don’t think their specific content is the point anyway.  Or if it is then, like the steel itself, it flew over my head!
** I totally only know to use the term expressionist due to watching Director Bertie Carvel’s 2015 play, The Hairy Ape.  It feels disingenuous not to mention it, and the opening is redolent in style to this play in the way it works upon the audience.

PPPS… If you made it this far it is an actual miracle.  A provocation to end… At one point in the play, Enid utters this gem, teehee:

“People talk about sympathy with the working classes, they don’t know what it means to try and put it into practice.  It seems hopeless.”

The audience titters, amused and shocked at Enid’s awful words and easy dismissal of her cause and these people she says she wants to help.  But is this so far from how things actually are?  How easily does everyone turn away from all that is hard to look at?  Not funny.  More terrifying….

Sleep tight?

Finally, sorry for all my silly words.

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