STRIFE by John Galsworthy, directed by Bertie Carvel, with William Gaunt, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, Thurs 18th Aug, 7.00pm.
For those of you who haven't been to the Chichester Festival Theatre, or its smaller cousin, the Minerva Theatre, let me fill you in: both are arranged as thrust stages, longer than they are wide, surrounded on three sides by sloping banks of seats. It's a terrific set-up, not a bad seat in the house. When you add its bucolic surroundings, trees, playing fields, tennis courts, an archery range, lots of space and places to sit outdoors, it's like going to theatre heaven.
As great as the stage setup is for the audience, it can create challenges for any production and those who work on them, particularly in terms of getting things on and off, changes of scene etc. There's no real facility for easily lowering scenery from above, flying, as in normal theatres, so there's lots of stuff coming up from below stage and from one end, requiring a small army of enthusiastic staff in costume, setting and re-setting.
Why am I going on about this?
Strife came up with a pretty cool (I promised my son I wouldn't use that word; hey-ho) solution: a huge slab of red hot iron rose out of the stage and was moved about, by crane from above, becoming a boardroom table and later a speaker's platform. (It still needed someone to hook and unhook, but that added to the effect.) While this was happening, very slowly by the way, we heard actual news reports, from BBC radio and television, regarding the recent, potential closure of the Tata Steel mills in Wales, a current event which paralleled the strike and subsequent disruption at the tinplate mill which formed the central subject of the play.
And the voice reading the television news? Unmistakably, Fiona Bruce, star of Sunday night; face not just of the Six O'Clock News but of those shows which seek to ascribe value to things, especially knick knacks which turn up in attics or auction sales, and paintings of dubious provenance. The value doesn't lie in the quality of the artistic achievement, but in what someone, somewhere, may be willing to pay for it.
And no, I don't have it in for Fiona Bruce, I'm just as much a fan as the next person. And this was just a short introduction. Once the stage was set the play reverted to its original time and place.
But what had been established was the link to television, especially Sunday night on the Beeb. And John Galsworthy has form in this area: I am old enough, just, to remember my parents watching the 1960s version of the Forsyth Saga, in black and white and in Australia, with that Easter Island statue, Eric Porter, who subsequently reprised his role in another Sunday evening blockbuster, Anna Karenina.
As the action progressed, it resembled nothing so much as a television play, broadcast live, with a studio audience, the actors disbursed more easily to be filmed, moving only occasionally, energy and vivacity focused on the speeches and set pieces, coming to life in the editing suite. All that was missing were the studio cameras, pedestals with wheels, the Daleks of drama.
The opportunity to peek behind the curtain, as it were, on a cast performing an historical play, employing all the techniques that they would use were they performing the same on television, give or take something in the way of volume, was interesting and enlightening.
Because really, this wasn't so much a play as an adaptation of a novel never written. Strife comes from that time just before film and well before TV. Theatre these days is free to focus on what it does best, but the big historical mini-series, the gussying up of the 19th Century novel, is still the flagship, the tent-pole of quality television. Before television, theatre had to take up the slack.
Why is this not a play?
Because it breaks the fundamental rule: get the conflict on the stage. It's more about characters taking turns to deliver polemic.
In Strife, all the really interesting stuff has happened in the past, or happens off stage. Everyone's positions are already entrenched. The driving force of the novel is to 'explain', to describe what happens and why, to let us into the characters' thoughts and deliberations. Novels recount what has happened. They deal in the past.
Theatre, in contrast, is in the present. Only what happens now matters.
And this presents a dilemma for the reviewer.
First of all, the only rule really, is there are no rules. I'm contradicting what I just said three paragraphs ago. If British actors weren't so brilliant at the dark art of making novels believable as television dramas we wouldn't have the long list of world-wide successes that I, along with many others, have enjoyed over and over again.
Television is, I can't remember who said this, radio with pictures; words illustrated. Basically, you don't have to use your imagination. In fact, success or otherwise depends on how closely the pictures resemble what you might have imagined, or how closely they match up to the pictures you imagined when you read the book.
Theatre, in contrast, is all about nudging the audience to use their imagination, to engage. (You just said there weren't any rules.)
On television the actor is isolated from the viewer. Just a picture on a screen. Theatre is real, flesh and blood, actually present. It makes logical sense that the two mediums require different techniques. (Let's state the bleeding obvious.)
Back to the play (about time you say); the world Galsworthy describes is fixed, immutable, slave to empire, capital, class. But in less than 5 years the Great War would begin and these certainties would be upended, socially, scientifically and artistically: Dada, surrealism, modernism, Einstein, James Joyce, Pound, Eliot.
But this didn't stop people looking for certainty, for that which is fixed, outside of the messily human.
And this goes on still: the most apt parallel with the industrial relations story isn't steelmaking but Uber, the mini-cab company, which has 50 million drivers worldwide but is intent on replacing them all with self-driving cars. People only required in order to pay the fare.
The bottom line is drama can be fixed, an image on a screen, requiring the actor to create their role cut off from interaction, or drama can be presented on a stage, and the actor can engage with the audience and with other actors, creating their role collaboratively; performance as artefact or as social experience. While Strife sits naturally, for all the above reasons, in the former, it also confirms and reinforces the very best of British acting (across all mediums) and provides an anchor for the loyal and engaged audience by saying 'this is who we are'.
To watch this production is to be enthralled by the sheer skill of the actors.