|Volume 49 Number 4, March 9, 2019||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Production of Wonderland at the Northern Stage, Newcastle
The play Wonderland, which had previously been staged in London in 2014 and had a very successful regional premier at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2018, has just had its second run this year, starting in February in Nottingham and finishing in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. That March this year marked the 35th anniversary of the start of the 1984-85 miners' strike was a major draw to the large audiences that attended the play's run at the Northern Stage in Newcastle between February 27 and March 9. Following the play at one performance, a representative of the Durham Miners' Association led a question and answer session with the actors and audience.
This powerful production, featuring wonderful acting and song and a brilliant stage production, was written by Beth Steel and directed by Adam Penford. The play is set at the Welbeck Colliery in Nottingham, where many of the miners had come and settled from the North East coalfields as a result of pit closures in the 1960s in the Durham area.
Writing in the programme about the play's revival this year, Penford said: "Although the action takes place 35 years ago, a lot of the politics resonate with contemporary society and I suspect different characters, moments and lines will ring out with increased familiarity and power."
As the director says, "you are from the opening scene thrust into this underground world" and the baptism of fire of two young apprentice miners with one of the coal face gangs. The coarse comments underground are tempered by the growing comradeship needed to cope with the ever-present dangers and the heat in the mine. In this early part of the play, the miners sing movingly about their life underground and their history of struggle.
As the story unfolds, the miners go through a second baptism of fire as they launch their strike and fight to maintain it against the full force of the state. In these scenes the singing stops, adding to the force of the arguments the miners give to defend their strike, the union and its leadership and conveying a sense of what the dignity of labour really means: not just the dignity of hard work in the mine, but of taking responsibility to defend their interests as part of the fight to defend society as a whole against the all-sided attack on it by the ruling class. The writer does not hold back from showing that both before the strike starts and as the strike progresses, the embattled miners suffer huge hardships. The play shows how each miner tries to cope with this, attempting to protect their livelihood and their families.
The story also depicts the real characters of the time in the government and state apparatus, with their outlook of privatisation and their obsession with defeating the miners. Representing the unfettered interests of the financial elite, these characters want to break the resistance of the working class and to transform the crisis-ridden state-owned system into a source of huge profits for themselves, regardless of the costs to the working class and people and to their future. In these scenes, the play draws people back to the miners' strike, because today these consequences are being felt with every passing year, as the productive forces are destroyed and as assets such as public services suffer the consequences of the anti-social offensive.
Whilst their outlook is to disempower the miners, with a plan to defeat them within six months, the representatives of the rich cannot agree and fight among themselves on how to win. During the strike, even Ian MacGregor - the American CEO known as the butcher - tie all askew and running out of coal stocks at the power stations - wants to negotiate a settlement with the miners after six months. But the criminal outlook of Thatcher and the ideologues of the British state to defeat the miners at all costs is revealed.
The play reveals the plan of the state forces for a showdown at Orgreave, five months after the start of the strike. They try to smash the strength of the miners' pickets in one place using, police, police cavalry and the army. The playwright's research also reveals how this was done in some detail. No wonder the present government refuses to expose the truth of Orgreave as ex-miners and organised labour are presently demanding.
As the state-organised police units and army are increasingly brought to bear against the miners and mining villages, stopping people moving around the country, the resilience and maturing of the outlook of the miners and their communities is revealed by the play. In spite of the painful setbacks and tragedies, they continue the strike beyond the six months with the women playing an increasingly vital role to the whole struggle through the harsh winter until the strike ends after a full year.
At the conclusion of the play, the sense of the dignity and the new maturity at the end of the strike shines through. Risking their own lives the gang rescue from a rock fall a young strike-breaker who had gone back after eleven months. In this final scene, these miners have the last word, revealing the legacy of this strike today in their communities. They have not gone away because of the defeat of the strike. No, they are here with us in the fight for the new society we all desire.
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