When two opposite worlds collided
Wonderland, a new play about the miners’ strike reviewed by Peter Arkell
who was a photographer during the strike and co-author of
Unfinished Business: the miners' strike for jobs 1984-5
The events of the miners’ strike for jobs of 1984-5 continue to lurk in the psyche and break surface from time to time, an indication that the destruction of an industry and with it hundreds of thousands of skilled well-paid jobs, cannot be forgotten.
Wonderland, a play at the Hampstead Theatre, by Beth Steel takes the form of an objective overview of the whole strike from within a mine. The spectacular set at the Hampstead Theatre in North London has a miners' cage that moves up and down, a metal grille as the floor, a hydraulic ramp that takes the characters even deeper into the pit, walkways at the top of the set and bits of coal and dust everywhere.
The way it is lit, sometimes only with the concentrated beams from the top of the miners’ helmets, completes the convincing atmosphere. It is almost as if the set itself is the main character in the play, dominating the human players and determining how they think and act.
As for the humans, they are in two groups. Those under the heading ABOVE in the cast list are the actual players of the period, the people with power, who keep their own names. They argue amongst themselves and scheme against the miners. Milton Friedman, the monetarist guru of the Tory Party in the early 1980s is the first character on stage, the scene-setter.
He explains that the ideas lying around in the corridors of power and seized on at the time of crisis were his. Nicholas Ridley, the Tory politician, expounds his strategy for re-arming the party to break the stranglehold of the miners’ union.
Peter Walker, the energy secretary at the time, comes across as a moderating figure who reins in Ian MacGregor, the chairman of the National Coal Board who has a simple, unsophisticated confrontational outlook. “The government has no business being in business,” he says.It is the interplay between Walker, MacGregor and David Hart, the professional strike-breaker who operates from a room in Claridges – all three of them with different ideas of the best way to break the strike – that provide the dramatic content from within this group of characters. Only once does any of them, Macgregor, stray into the domain of the miners, and he gets a frosty reception from them, and fails to communicate.
The other group of characters, listed under the heading BELOW in the cast list are the miners themselves, who live in an opposite world. Two apprentices, a few seasoned pitmen, a deputy and the pit manager, actually mine the coal on stage, setting the explosive charges, loading the coal, pushing the trolleys, setting the pit props and so on.
They are a close, proud group, looking out for each other, working as a team and dealing with emergencies of which there are several including two roof falls. And of course, they are full of the comic banter that miners are famous for, about women, work and higher things besides.
Being from Nottinghamshire, the fact of the strike when it comes, splits them into those for and against. Opinions and ideas about the ballot, about their wives, about how to survive are tossed around, but the strike itself forces the issues. A mass picket is staged with placards, arrests and a beating by the police. There is a moving cameo of the striking miners threatened with arrest for trespass while riddling for a few pieces of coal on an abandoned old tip. And there is a telling scene of David Hart tempting the scab Spud into his conspiracy to sue the NUM and to set up an alternative union for the scabs (working miners).
What is remarkable about the play is that it is told how it was, without exaggeration, however unbelievable it might seem today. Hart really did organise the strike-breakers. Educated at Eton, he had the ear of Margaret Thatcher the prime minister as well as MacGregor and evidently MI5. A Nottinghamshire miner did become his chauffeur (in the play Spud becomes his butler). When Hart says to MacGregor in the play: “Really I must leave you, my helicopter is waiting,” it is funny, but not absurd in the context.
And the other characters with power are also drawn true to what is known about their actions and thoughts during the strike. Much is left out of course, including Arthur Scargill and Thatcher, but the bare bones of the miners' story remains. In an interview with the writer Beth Steel in the programme notes, she says about the writing: “There's an acute desire to get it right – to include as much as possible – and that can get in the way. But I think plays and poems are cousins, not because of poetic dialogue, but rather because of a good poem's irreverent use of reality, its disregard for all the details with which a novelist builds their reality.”It does become a wonderland that these fantastic events were allowed by the rest of society to be played out without much intervention from anywhere, and that the way of life of the mining communities was destroyed as a result of it. No more will youngsters in the former mining areas be able to say: “I am the son of a son of a son of a miners's son” – one of the refrains of the play.
The danger of writing a play like this, with a 360 degree viewpoint is that it can become more of a history lesson than a play. Most of the literature of the strike either sets a human drama against the backdrop of the strike, as in Billy Elliott and Brassed Off, or it gets into the skull of a single individual, a miner or one of the women of the strike, or even a policeman and relates their story.
The drama acted out within each set of characters in Wonderland and the very fact that they live in two opposite worlds that hardly come into contact with each other, even though they are interdependent, gives it a tension and a life that carries it through.
Beth Steel is a miner’s daughter who did not go to university. She was drawn to the theatre in her early 20s, and has now written two plays, both of them staged. Her original intention was to write a play set in a mine that would not be about the strike. “I had no interest in writing a memorial to a very old-fashioned strike,” she says in an interview in the programme.“Then something happened in my head. We read about the past with the lens and light of the present, but sometimes our past shines back and illuminates our present. So I wrote this play as a way of thinking about austerity, about the true cost of it, and who pays and who doesn't.”
9 July 2014