Monday, 22 August 2016

Theatre Review: Strife

An annual pilgrimage to the Chichester Festival Theatre is one of the highlights of my summer these days.

Last year it was big glossy musical Mack and Mabel, this year a rather different kettle of theatrical fish: Strife, a gritty Edwardian political morality play.

Image source.

Written by The Forsyte Saga’s John Galsworthy, Strife tells the story of a strike at a South Wales tinplate works. The mine’s board, shareholders, Trade Union and many of the workers want the strike to end but this would mean compromise and to both the company’s owner John Anthony and strike leader David Roberts that is worse than failure. Compromise, as it inevitably does, eventually wins out. No one tell Jeremy Corbyn.

There is so much that is contemporary in this play, something which this production is slightly too at pains to stress, but neither the ideas it plays with nor the analysis it offers are particularly exceptional. Neither really are the characters, none of whom are fleshed out beyond their role in the strike. And the attempts at ‘Welsh dialect’ - ie adding the phrase ‘look you’ onto the end of every third sentence - are so ridiculous to my (Welsh native and therefore biased) ear that they made me laugh.

That said, look you, there is some lovely writing on display, mostly given to Roberts and the other workers, and actually this is a much more subtle play than many of its contemporaries - god awful Waste, for example - in that there is relatively little judgement meted out on either side. The added dynamic of men vs Union is also an interesting touch, one which any production of this play could benefit from examining more closely. It’s a much more interesting theme than labour vs capital for my money. I also enjoyed the frequent statements about how the middle class is terrible, something which would feel quietly radical being said in any British theatre but in Chichester is positively revolutionary.

But let’s be honest here, the play itself was approximately 0% of the reason I came to see this production. Approximately 100% of that reason was sat in the director’s chair: Bertie Carvel, making his directorial debut. And though I may disagree with his choice of play, there aren’t many more of his decisions in this production that I would question. Biased as I undoubtedly am, this is a terrifically assured, technically impressive and subtly distinctive piece for any director to have under their belt, debut or otherwise.

There is definitely the beginnings of a Carvel style on show during this production and it’s a very interesting one. This comes across most strongly in the aesthetics. Chief amongst the things that make this production work is the bleak but beautiful design (courtesy of Robert Jones). Vaguely reminiscent of The Hairy Ape in its sparsity and harshness, and also in its use of all of the senses to conjure an atmosphere, there are a number of very memorable, visually arresting scenes. The majority of these rely on one very clever and very multitasking prop: a giant slab of molten metal which is transformed first into the boardroom table for the mine’s owners’ meeting and later into a platform for the men to stand on whilst speaking at their meeting (this latter scene enhanced by liberal use of fake snow). As both an image and a metaphor, set against an all grey and empty performing space, all of these uses work so well. Director, designer and large slab of metal can justly consider themselves the stars of the show. (Though hopefully the latter is not sentient enough to do so.)

This is doubly true since the quality of the acting is frankly a bit patchy. Whilst the actors in lead roles are generally excellent, particularly Ian Hughes and his amazing moustache as a principled-without-caricature Roberts and Tomos Eames as his firey-est critic from amongst the men, a proper scenestealer of a performance actually, the quality in the smaller parts and ensemble isn’t always so high.

Ultimately Strife is a play that was unlikely to ever get me that excited but this production is very definitely worth your time and money, even if you only go for the near faultless visuals and impressive direction. And here’s hoping this is the first of many for actor/director Bertie Carvel too. It certainly deserves to be.

Strife is at the Minerva at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10th September.

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