From the moment that the theatre went dark and the sonorous tones of John Humphreys announced the Tata Steel decision, earlier this year, to try to sell off their steel holdings in the UK, while a “red hot” steel bar was winched up through the floor, to be turned into a director’s conference table, we were on the edge of our seats. It was not going to be a comfortable evening of easy viewing!
The story is set in 1906 in South Wales, where a strike by workers was being met with obstinate refusal by the Victorian chairman of the company, played very believably by William Gaunt. The patriarchy was alive and kicking in both the rich and poor houses, with dominant male figures making decisions for everyone else, while fighting each other. It was difficult to separate his pride from his intransigence.
Poverty and pride, mixed with evangelical zeal from those who were either elected to, or assumed, leadership roles, meant that all information was interpreted through these mouthpieces, with inevitable bias, chapel or personal. The wives were initially supportive, but questioning when several among them were getting ill as a consequence. One key leader was so involved that he gave all his savings to the cause, but also ignored the fact that his wife was dying. A sequence of, almost, throwaway lines indicated that a large number the men were still drinking in the pub, while food was scarce in the home and a lack of heating fuel meant that their homes were freezing.
All of the characters and situations were believable; the staging, often quite sparse, was supportive of the developing story and, in usual Chichester (Minerva) fashion showed huge ingenuity in a small space.
To some degree, it was a tale of manipulation, as evidenced by the last comment from the union leader, when pressed by the company secretary to explain how the agreement reached was exactly the same as proposed at the beginning of the strike, but not seemingly presented to the strikers; “That’s where the fun begins.”
People in leadership roles play with the lives of others. They may profess responsibility, but, sadly, other agendas can creep into situations. We see this in politics, where parts of the NHS could appear to be in exactly the same situation as the situation in the play. Politicians still act in patriarchal ways, as if they know what’s best for everyone else. Company bosses and directors will enjoy a significantly different life from their employees, in salaries and perks. Union leaders can enjoy a certain status while seeking to represent their members.
In education, we’ve seen recently a few people questioning the appointment if Alison Peacock as CEO of the developing College of Teachers. It’s difficult to understand whether the questioning is jealousy, or concern that the name implies only classroom teachers, or perhaps everyone who has trained as a teacher and who is of an age where they could decide to be active in the classroom. This latter group might include promoted teachers, or those who are qualified and teaching in another form of institution.
It’s “us and them”, a polarised position, with, at the extreme, very little common ground. In the case of “Strife”, this led to the two main protagonists in their own corner, into which they were trapped by their own rhetoric and the collective decisions of the majority. Polarisation creates enmity, dislike and, sadly, at an extreme, hate, where people start to act in ways that seek to be destructive. This can lead to self-destruction. Neither situation is healthy, for any of the participants.
“Jaw-jaw is better that war-war”