“There is only one way of treating men, with the iron hand … yield one demand and they will take six”
The list of the NT2000 top 100 plays is an interesting one, full of the sort of plays I wouldn’t ever have chosen to see and so using it as a guide to stretching my theatrical viewing has been illustrative. Which is a roundabout way of saying the latest play I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for myself that I went to see was John Galsworthy’s 1909 Strife at the Minerva in Chichester, incidentally marking Bertie Carvel’s directorial debut.
Set around an industrial dispute at a Welsh tinplate works where a strike has been running for six months, Strife examines the stresses this places on all concerned. The workers, who don’t have the support of their union; the board, who have travelled from London to thrash out a compromise; and the firebrand leaders of each faction who might not be so different as all that, each equally stubborn in refusing to budge from their position.
Galsworthy does well as showing us the multiplicity of positions on each side – how the privations of strike life affects people in different ways, wearing some down quicker than others, and how business sense and principles are often difficult to hold at the same time. Strife also has the added piquancy that comes with the ever-worsening decline of our contemporary industrial works from Wales to the North-East.
It is tempting to think that Carvel has taken inspiration from his turn in The Hairy Ape, key impressionistic moments are strikingly delivered, not least a stunning opening, but there’s also quiet, simple beauty when needed, as in the fall of snow during a crucial debate. William Gaunt and Ian Hughes spar marvellously as the two leaders, feeding off each other, but the rest of the play pales a little by comparison, lacking a similar effectiveness to really engage us in the wider world of Strife.