The British manufacturing industry has been in terminal decline for more than 100 years. It has had an occasional brief return to some sort of form but the demise of its steel, tinplate and mining industries has become an inevitable by-product of global markets, a shift in demand, and the advent of new technology and employment opportunities.
John Galsworthy, writer, playwright, philanthropist and campaigner for social reform, spent his life trying to improve the lot of the working man.
In part, he made an impact, but just how influential his plays were – considering they were probably only seen by the very upper classes whose behaviour he despised – is open to debate.
It is a mystery why Chichester Festival Theatre – and first-time director, actor, Bertie Carvel – felt the need to resurrect Galsworthy’s 1909 worthy but dull drama, Strife, for its 2016 Season. Perhaps they felt it had something to say.
Yes, we all know that Wales’ economy is under threat from the future of its steel industry, but Strife isn’t the play to prick modern consciences, nor powerful or engaging enough to sway opinion in the corridors of power.
Simplistic in its story-telling, Strife pitches the audience into the middle of a dispute between the bastard bosses who only care about profits – and the workforce who want, we assume, a living wage and better working conditions.
I say assume because we never learn exactly what the 1909 strike at Trenartha Tinplate Works is all about. We don’t know how badly off the men are or what they are striking for and, because of that, we don’t know whether we should sympathise of not.
More, it is a story about principles and pride that sees factory boss, the intransigent John Anthony, going head-to-head with firebrand workers’ leader, David Roberts.
After a harsh winter on strike the men and their families are starving and the evil, money grabbing capitalists on the board, are feeling the pinch. It’s time for someone to back down.
But, do you know, I didn’t really care. None of the characters are sympathetically portrayed. Ian Hughes’ rhetoric didn’t get my juices flowing, and he is a bit of a damp squib as a firebrand, while William Gaunt’s monosyllabic, hard-nosed industrialist, John Anthony is a one-dimensional stereotype.
The audience learns next to nothing about the real cost of human suffering and Carvel’s clunky, naive direction, which over-eggs the imagery, fails to get the best out of his ensemble cast.
Gaunt plays John Anthony as though he has a bad case of toothache, his occasional dialogue either incomprehensible – even to his fellow players – or spat out in disgust.
The old boy has been at the helm of the company he started for more than 30 years and has no intention to giving in to protesters despite pleas from his children and his fellow board members.
Roberts defies the union, and his own men, to dig in his heels for what he perceives as a watershed moment. Neither man will give an inch.
On the board Madhav Sharma, as businessman William Scantlebury, blusters and frets while Julian Firth’s Wilder wants a quick resolution so that he can take his wife to Spain. Most of the roles are underwritten.
“No surrender! No compromise!!” grunts Anthony amid noxious cigar smoke.
In the one major speech of the production Anthony finally finds his voice to declare: “There’s only one way to deal with the men – with an iron hand!”
“Every man is well neigh starving but we’ll die first!” says Roberts in one of his confrontations with the surly, taciturn, Anthony.
Anthony’s butler, Frost, is, bizarrely and for no obvious reason, played by a woman, Nicola Sloane, dressed as a man. Frost is also, unrealistically I’d have thought for a servant, given full range to express his own opinions on the dispute.
It’s a disappointing production with little to say to modern audiences. Today, when Britain operates in a global market with international big business, Galsworthy’s “them and us” argument is hopelessly out of date.
One only has to look at the £350m regeneration of Ebbw Vale to realise communities have a future following the demise of traditional industry.
Strife runs in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until September 10.
John Galsworthy’s industrial relations museum piece, Strife, is worthy but dull, failing to engage or create interest at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.