Along with the National Theatre and the Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre has been streaming online critically-acclaimed productions from recent years. Last week, Beth Steel’s Wonderland was broadcast, which was originally commissioned to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Miners Strike… The early 1980s were a turbulent period of Britsh history. Under Margaret Thatcher’s tenure in power, there was the privatisation of many state-owned companies and unemployment soared. In addition, there was widespread social unrest in major cities and police were drafted in to keep the peace – though some would argue that their ‘heavyhandedness’ precipitated the unrest in the first place. Such complaints were also made during the during the Miners Strike, which even today is remembered by all sides as a pivotal event of the decade.
Wonderland is a candid account of the events that led to the closure of collieries during the 1980s and the motives of all involved. This being the case, the focus switches between Nottinghamshire – where the earmarked coal pits reside – and London, where assessments of their ‘economic viability’ are made.
To convey the importance of coal mining in the British psyche at that time, one has to know a little of what transpired the previous 150 years. The British Industrial Revolution and nascent railway system required copious amounts of coal for fuel. As a result, mining operations couldn’t cope with the demand and new coalfields were constantly sought. Later, during the First and Second World War, the pits were government-controlled until they were nationalised under the Atlee administration. But while wages for miners were initially comparable to other sectors, they fell in the early 1970s, which led to strike action and the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vowing to never to have history repeat itself, the subsequent Conservative government a decade later took a hardline approach to resistance…
The audience is introduced to the subterranean world of Wonderland through the eyes of schooleavers Jimmy (Ben-Ryan Davies) and Malcolm (David Moorst) on their first day. As the ‘guv’nor’ (or rather the ‘Colonel’) Paul Brennen keeps the neophytes on the straight and narrow. The early scenes establish the camaraderie among the men and that not everyone is cut out for this line of work. Later, an altercation that’s broken up by the Colonel sums up events to come. United and conflict-free, the miners are solid, robust. Through dissension, the world threatens to cave in on them…
It is, however, through the discourse at Whitehall that we see the bigger picture, cutting through the romanticised notions of the ‘noble profession’. Here we meet Ian MacGregor (Michael Cochrane) the Scottish-American head of the National Coal Board. While experienced in matters of business, it’s evident that he has little understanding for how news of the colliery closures will be received in the UK – either that, or he doesn’t care.
Meanwhile, Peter Walker (Andrew Havill) the Secretary of State for Energy, is with good reason more circumspect about how the colliery closures will affect industrial relations. As the play’s unlikely prime mover, David Hart (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) – an adviser to Thatcher and the organiser of the anti-strike campaign – is the epitome of eccentricity and whose comfortable life as far removed from hard labour as possible. However, he possesses (through his ‘theatrics’) a knack for getting people of all persuasions to listen to him. His conversation with one miner, Spud (Gunnar Cauthery) leads to the play exploring the ‘myth’ of coal mining culture – whether miners believe in their bones that they ‘belong’ to the pits (in the same way the ‘Okie’ farmers ‘belonged’ to the land in The Grapes of Wrath), or whether the ubiquitous nature of collieries in the miners’ psyche obscures their perception, to not want anything more out of life.
In today’s world with the importance placed on renewable energy, the struggle to keep fossil fuel repositories open seems an antiquated idea and actually detrimental to the environment. However, taken in the context of the times, such matters weren’t even a consideration. Wonderland at its core shows that that abrupt change without conciliatory dialogue leads to entrenched views, anger and hardship. In short, when ‘an irresistible force meets an immovable object’.
In many respects, the events of Wonderland echoes the events portrayed in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.
© Michael Davis 2020
Wonderland streamed on Hampstead Theatre’s website from 6th to 12th April. From 13th to 19th April, Howard Brenton’s Drawing The Line streams on Hampstead Theate’s site.