Opening with a rapid audio romp backwards through British industrial history, Bertie Carvel’s production of John Galsworthy’s 1909 play Strife is determined from the outset to tell us just how relevant it is.
“You’re not just watching a crusty old bit of half-lost drama,” it shouts. “You’re watching something which gives a context for all the industrial failures which have followed!”
It’s a little early to forsake all subtlety. For the tale of a tin plate works, it’s a distinctly leaden start – and the night never really recovers, a wordy evening which, in fairness, was facing a pretty near impossible task not of its own making.
Could it make us forget we were missing the Olympics for this? No, not remotely.
And numerous bizarreries in the staging dig the hole deeper.
It was unfathomable why half the audience was staring at itself in a mirror; the female butler was frankly spooky; and the scene-shifters dressed in modern-day factory kit smacked of desperation. “Yes, it’s all terribly, terribly relevant” they might as well have had written across their chests.
A more confident production would have cut the sillinesses and allowed the play to speak for itself with its message that industrial conflict isn’t just black and white; there are shades of grey on both sides.
Embodying intransigence is the key battle between John Anthony (William Gaunt), elderly chairman of the Trenartha Tin Plate Works in Wales, and the firebrand strike leader David Roberts (Ian Hughes).
Around them on either side, wading through the consequences, are various people – the board versus the workers – aware that surely somewhere compromise has to be made. But to learn that this was as much the case is 1909 as it is today hardly comes as earth-shattering historical insight.
We wait for the penny to drop as to why we are being offered this play at this particular moment, especially in a production which comes with such daftnesses. You even sit there wishing they had had the sense to change the unfortunate name of one of the characters.
Even so, there are still pleasures to be enjoyed. Gaunt manages to convey huge strength of character despite his frail frame. He remains an actor of immense presence.
Elsewhere, Lucy Black conveys the nobility of the doomed victim of it all; and Lizzy Watts is excellent as the naïve do-gooder who at least has the decency to cross the lines in probably the play’s most interesting strand.
But few of the other characters add up to much, and the lasting impression is of a production reluctantly aware that it really hasn’t unearthed the lost treasure it had been hoping for...
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