The Miners’ Strike of 1984 split the country, from top to bottom. Chances are that Beth Steel’s Wonderland, tracing the lives of some of those involved may do the same. Steel, daughter of a miner has written a fierce, provocative account of the battle for hearts and minds not only of the miners but the country as a whole that reawakens old wounds and has much to say to us today about austerity, the manipulation of unemployment and the market economy so beloved of Milton Friedman and his supporters.
Interestingly, two of the strike’s main protagonists, Arthur Scargill, leader of the NUM, the miners’ union and Maggie Thatcher, never appear. Instead, Steel’s debate – and the government’s determination to break the power of the unions – is played out between a group of Yorkshire miners and other government real life figures such as Peter Walker, the Tory government’s then Energy Minister, Ian McGregor, the American businessman brought in as Chairman of the National Coal Board, the hardliner Nicholas Ridley and taking a prime role, a behind-the-scenes character that perhaps many of us who remember at the time being involved in support of the miners never realised as an orchestrator of events, one David Hart.
Thatcher adviser, sometime playwright, ex-Etonian and as directed here, flamboyant to the point of camp, agent provocateur, Hart it is who sets about dividing the miners, encouraging those who wish or need to keep working to join the alternative union, Union of Democratic Mineworkers, so styled as an opposition to Scargill’s NUM and his perhaps ill-fated decision not to call a national ballot leading to accusations of the strike being undemocratic.
Steel has clearly done her homework and her arguments and events covering the year-long strike, on the whole, are staked out with admirable even-handedness.
All the same, you can’t help feeling her natural partisanship. Political and police authorities do tend to end up rather more as caricatures whereas the heart and soul of Steel’s piece – the miners – are displayed in full three dimensional, individualistic colour. It is their story, their camaraderie, their bonding, their conflicts that is the real substance of Wonderland which is as far away from a David Hare type of political documentary drama as it’s possible to be.
Partly this is to do with Steel’s richly idiomatic script that highlights the rhythms and humorously blunt speech patterns of its workers but overwhelmingly it derives from Ed Hall’s visceral production, so reminiscent of his work with his all-male Propeller company. Male bonding is one of his fortes. So too his eclectic vision which constantly redefines Hampstead’s auditorium.
Gone the catwalk staging for his last show, the high octane, musical blast about The Kinks, Sunny Afternoon, deservedly transferring to the West End in the autumn. This time, the set takes centre stage, Ashley Martin-Davis’s extraordinary colliery pithead a complex of high level metal gantries, steel grilles, lifts and heavy coal trucks laden with coal and planks. The `sons of toil’ atmosphere was never so effectively – and convincingly – recreated in a theatre as here with its grime, blackened faces and sense of shared community shown through the production’s own harshness and the miners’ songs that accompany it.
This, the production is saying, isn’t just work. It’s a way of life, a bond forged between men by the nature of the occupation and relationships going back generations. Hall and Steel have captured that brilliantly. And the pride in work such labour inspired.
For, in the end, Wonderland is a lament for a lost way of being that endowed its workforce – here exclusively men – with an indelible sense of their own worth and identity. As with the privatised railways and the rundown of the docks and ship workers, the economic argument for cheap labour and closure of `uneconomic’ manufacturing companies carries a cost, Steel shows, in personal and individual lives.
With the Miners’ Strike of 1984, it caused a grievous splitting of communities within themselves, a bitterness that lives on. The events of 30 years ago so vividly if a touch melodramatically relived here are not only a reminder of national loss but of class wars that continue to this day.