Of the plays I saw during six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, these plays about justice stood out: “A Common Man: The Bridge that Tom Built,” “The Red Shed,” “Playing Maggie,” and “Undermined.”
The first play is about Thomas Paine, who fought for liberty in colonial America, was forced out for his politics, and spent time in London and also as a member of the Convention in revolutionary France, before having to flee. His story is not well enough known in America. The other three, addressing issues in the Paine tradition, deal a few centuries later with British politics and particularly the miners‘ strike of 1984-5, which still reverberates in Brits’ psyches.
“A Common Man: The Bridge that Tom Built.”
Written by Dominic Allen; directed by Joe Hufton.
Perhaps it takes a Brit like Dominic Allen to turn the life of Tom Paine into a moving drama that makes an American proud to salute him as one of the nation‘s founders — even if he lost out to the slaveholders, including George Washington. On the other hand, Paine was born in England in 1727, and more than just an American, was a truly international fighter for freedom, traveling (and often in flight) between Britain, the colonies and even revolutionary France.
Dominic Allen, who wrote and stars in this solo play, is a moving Tom Paine. In a three-cornered hat, green coat, brown vest, and beige britches, he stands before a flag with 13 red and white stripes and tells a story most Americans do not know. Director Joe Hufton makes you believe this is a docudrama, a vivid reenaction.
The extraordinary Paine was a corset-maker by trade. In England, he fought for better pay and conditions for excise (tax) officers. In the colonies, he became a radical journalist, the editor of the Philadelphia magazine, “The Watchman of Liberty,” and in 1776 wrote the pamphlet, Common Sense, condemning old world oppression and arguing for independence and the end of slavery. Allen repeats his famous “These are the times that try men‘s souls” from “The American Crisis.” He tells how Paine campaigned against corruption, against poverty and for “the rights of man.” Allen portrays figures of the time, including, Benjamin Franklin, who befriended Paine, and Washington, who didn‘t.
This heroic figure‘s struggle wasn‘t easy. He accused the colonial government of being a lapdog of rampant capitalists who had won the day, with slavery persisting, claiming “war is profit.” He asked, “What did we fight the revolution for?” He wrote how the military corrupts commerce. He excoriated “sunshine patriots.” He was beaten by thugs.
Allen tells how Paine went back to England to join workers fighting for their rights there. But Prime Minister William Pitt called for his death, and he fled to France. There his voice and vision were so important, that he was elected to the Convention. He voted to imprison Louis XVI, not kill him! He had to escape revolutionary Paris! (Allen plays Robespierre.) Back to America, where he argued for secularism.
Paine died 1809 at 72. This important staging brings him alive. It should be performed in schools throughout the United States.
“The Red Shed”
Written and performed by Mark Thomas; directed by Joe Douglas.
There isn‘t anyone quite like Mark Thomas in America. There were race comics like Dick Gregory. And there are liberals like Jon Stewart. But no one as politically radical and important as Thomas. No one who, mixing passion and humor, speaks for a working class Left culture.
Last year in New York I saw “Cuckooed,” a solo play Thomas wrote and first performed in Edinburgh in 2014. It‘s about how he ran stings that put some illegal arms traffickers out of business or in jail and how he was deceived and betrayed by a “comrade” who turned out to be a spy for BAE Systems, the UK‘s largest aerospace and weapons company, a major supplier to Saudi Arabia. Thomas is good at mixing personal and political history.
“The Red Shed,” a powerful, moving production which won The Scotsman Fringe First Award and The Stage Edinburgh Awards special award this year, is a look back at the miners‘ strike of 1984-5. It‘s done through the device of trying to trace the children who on the day of the miners‘ defeat, were taken by their teacher to a school playground on a high street and sang “Solidarity Forever” as their dads and brothers marched by, back to work. “They seem to be singing into the face of defeat, singing into the future.” Later, he would say, “That is where I get my solidarity from.”
The Red Shed is a 47 foot-long wooden, red, Socialist shed in Wakefield, Yorkshire. It opened 50 years ago and, standing today opposite the brick Tory club, is “an improbable survivor in the gale of globalization,” Thomas says .
Now, the date is April 2013. Margaret Thatcher has just died. (Cheers from the audience.) Thomas is in the Red Shed, and he recalls how he started performing there, dealing with issues such as the miners‘ strike which he supported as a college student, the CND (committee for nuclear disarmament) and the movement against apartheid. He explains, “…Miners I got to know arrested on trumped up charges, found guilty in kangaroo courts and convictions reversed on appeal but still lost their pensions….”
The story, infused with his political commitment and passion, moves through his attempt to find the playground where teacher had taken the children many years before and then to trace them. Audience volunteers on stage hold masks that turn them into figures of the story.
It‘s mixed in with efforts to organize workers for higher wages, meetings at the Red Shed, and inside British politics. Sometimes, it seems like a serial with many characters. Or a movement meeting, especially when the audience is asked to stand and sing “The Red Shed” to the tune of “The Red Flag,” the Labor Party anthem.
“Our Labor Club is our Red Shed
It keeps the rain from off our head.
So stuff your brick built Tory club
We‘d rather pay our Labor subs.
So raise your glasses to the sky
We‘ll drink a drop until they‘re dry.
Though Tories Scoff and Liberals Sneer
We‘ll keep the Red Shed standing here.”
And at the end, Thomas leads the audience in the song the children sang, “Solidarity forever, for the union together is strong.” Like most of the people there, I knew the words and joined in.
Thomas points out that Wakefield, a strong labor town, voted 66 percent to leave the European Union.
Written and performed by Pip Utton; directed by Marguerite Chaigne.
“Playing Maggie” tells the miners‘ story from another point of view. Pip Utton plays Margaret Thatcher in a drag you watch him apply. He does his makeup to the sounds of “Isn‘t she lovely.” He pulls on a flip wig. Then in a soft breathy modulated voice, “she” recalls 11 and a half years in Downing Street. Not a triumph for the women‘s liberation movement. “Maggie” comments. “The women libbers hated me, and the feeling was absolutely mutual.”
Most of Maggie‘s “politics” turn out to be clichés. The feature of the performance is Utton‘s interaction with the audience, and he is brilliant at channeling what Thatcher would have said. It‘s as if she were there.
Would she indict Tony Blair for war crimes? The reply: “If you take country to war, as soon as you fire the first shot, you lose control. Tony Blair took the nation to war with no clear objective and plan to bring the troops back.”
But then we get to the theme that many Brits will never forget. An audience member asks, “Why did you declare war on the miners?”
“Maggie” takes umbrage at the question. She says it was a struggle against Arthur Scargill [the union leader], who she asserts took money from Gaddafi and the Russian government. That he wasn‘t willing to compromise. That the closed mines weren‘t economic.
Then, there‘s a surprise. His, Utton‘s, father was coal miner. He worked in the Littleton collar. Utton posits to Maggie, “Have you forgotten what you did to dad?” He lost his job. Over 1500 people lost jobs. Utton says the whole area went down, because it was dependent on mining. His father called him a traitor to his class. He went to drama school, but his father refused to see him perform.
But then, in the kind of twisted logic Maggie might have been proud of, Utton argues that it was all for the best. His father died at 84. Miners died in their 40s. He is glad that his father and other former miners didn‘t have to go down hell holes. How did they make a living? “They got the dole.” Maggie‘s economic plan didn‘t call for establishing new industries or training miners to staff them. (My comment, not his.)
Utton‘s performance is strong, if not his personal rationale. He does best being Maggie. He won two awards for that performance at the 2015 Fringe.
Written and performed by Danny Mellor; directed by Ben Butcher.
The memory of those days is poignantly revived by Danny Mellor, a young man in his 30s. There are political buttons on his jeans jacket. His voice is ardent; the piece is powerful.
He is in a small mining village in Yorkshire. He remembers, “We all had a job.” But the pits were uneconomical. “We fight back with banners,” he recounts. People who weren‘t miners went to picket in solidarity.
He recalls, “There‘s a confrontation with police who are mounted on horseback. The police attack the rally. The BBC shows miners throwing stones, then police charging. LIES!”
It was the last play I saw in Edinburgh this year. A fitting combination of the pride and sadness that suffuses many Brits‘ memories of the time more than 30 years ago when some of the country took workers‘ sides.