Hampstead’s new play about the 1984 miners’ strike was nearly defeated by technical glitches. Centre stage in Ed Hall’s production there’s a clanking great iron chute that stubbornly refused to go up and down when ordered. A bit like the miners.
The writer, Beth Steel, is a collier’s daughter and she romanticises the pit workers to the point where they seem like an exotic species of humming bird. Brave, high-minded and selfless, these noble sons of toil go marching off to the pithead every day to hack and burrow their way through the depths of hell. Into the elevator they trudge, their shovels resting on their shoulders, their voices uplifted in song. The platform shudders and falls away and their torch-crested helmets create little cones of blue-grey brilliance that dance prettily in the pit’s cavernous gob. Twelve hours later, they re-emerge from the bowels of the earth, mired and gleaming, and still trilling the same hearty chorus, but by now arranged in eight-part harmony. The devil himself would hesitate to raise a hand against these sweating, dust-glazed saints.
Opposing them is Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet along with various allies and freelance interlopers. Ms Steel, to her credit, resists the temptation to turn the Tories into a gang of demonic clowns, and she draws Peter Walker, Nicholas Ridley, and the coal-board boss, Ian MacGregor, as intelligent and pragmatic men. But because the play sticks so closely to the historical timeline it deprives itself of suspense or uncertainty. The strike starts, it continues, it gets nasty, it continues a bit more. Then bam. A whirlwind arrives in the shape of David Hart, an eccentric Etonian dilettante, who tours the collieries in disguise, encouraging strikers to return to work, and trying to foment splits within the NUM. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, a natural powerhouse of an actor, plays this dashing fantasist with oodles of verve and charm. Yet he feels alien to the story. Better to drop Hart altogether. Or give him his own play to star in.
As the strike grinds towards its 12th uninterrupted month, the play’s structure starts to count against it. Ms Steel has chosen the desultory swift-moving format of a TV screenplay that can work on stage provided the cast is small. Here the cast is enormous and the result is a sprawling, centre-less pageant that needs a compelling main character and a gripping single storyline. Anyone expecting to uncover fresh insights and half-forgotten facts from this show will be disappointed. The strike began on my 21st birthday and I went along hoping to cram my eager little brain with all kinds of novelties and curios about the dispute. But I came away with nothing.
Dominic Dromgoole’s decent and enjoyable production of Julius Caesar has several striking oddities. The Roman senators wear Elizabethan tunics and breeches but they overlay these with white togas when they attend the senate. It sounds strange but it makes sense. Less realistic is the age gap between the conspirators, who are all in their early 20s, and George Irving’s genial, sun-tanned dictator. The real Caesar died at 56 (as did Hitler), but Irving has been given a reprieve of at least a decade. Unusually he emphasises Caesar’s doddery warmth and likeability. There’s even a touch of the TV anchorman about his honeyed self-regard. One half expects him to start crooning an Andy Williams favourite. For some reason his accent is hard to place. Is he Moroccan or Venezuelan? Perhaps the director is reminding us that Caesar was Italian. But then why do his fellow Italians speak fluent Home Counties toff?
There’s good work from Christopher Logan, who portrays Casca as a mincing lisper with a camp manner and a bendy gait to match. An odd choice but it works well because Logan is a forceful and dynamic performer who makes you believe in his eccentricities. I wouldn’t blame Tom McKay for struggling to turn Brutus into a triumph. This owlish role is extremely hard to bring to life: it’s like an overcast Hamlet with flat batteries. Cassius (Anthony Howell) is short of gusto and variety. The early speeches of Cassius rank among the most exhilarating pieces of political invective ever written but his performance lacks colour and emotional venom. And the vast age gap between him and Caesar becomes baffling. When did this beardless whelp accompany the aging general on his military campaigns, or rescue him from drowning during a trans-Tiberian swimming match? The play Shakespeare wrote draws Cassius as an embittered contemporary of Caesar. But Dromgoole insists that he’s a punk upstart challenging a desiccated grandee. The Globe’s programme, as ever, is full of scholarly gems including the revelation that the Elizabethans’ grasp of history was even shakier than our own: they all thought the Tower of London was a Roman monument.