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Not Jesus but Brian

Dust; on tour. David Douglass reviews.

Ade Morris (writer and director), Ralph Bernard (producer)
Michael Stobel plays king Arthur
Ade Morris (writer and director), Ralph Bernard (producer) Dust; on tour


For those who only speak Arthur Scargill’s name in hushed tones with bowed head while genuflecting, this play is sacrilegious, blasphemous or “shite” (as, I think, Ken Capstick - former Yorkshire area National Union of Mineworkers vice-president and now Arthur’s right-hand man in the Socialist Labour Party - called it).
The response of the tiny SLP sect has been comparable to a hysterical religious outrage. The second commandment is perhaps recalled: “Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy god in vain.” Despite any real assault upon Arthur in the play, it has been denounced as a veiled attack upon him. For those naive enough not to understand, the timing is, of course, of immense importance: as the masses start to awake and look for solutions and leaders, and Arthur’s oratory is ever more in demand (just when his second coming is due), along comes this wicked, disgraceful play - or so we are told.
The play is clearly part of a political conspiracy linked to the Russian gold slander. You can plead, ‘It’s just theatre’ all you like: all that does is place you on the list of traitors and dupes. The internet has been alive with the hysterical condemnations by the faithful.
In fact this is a fiction; I stress that, because one former Women Against Pit Closures activist was moved to heckle the actors at the Barnsley showing of the play. In her case she knew damn well she would be annoyed - outraged even - but came along anyway to let everyone else know.
That this is fiction is clear from the fact that (a) it is set on the morning of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and (b) the former NUM leader is using a laptop. One suspects that some of the objections from residue Scargillites arise from the fact that the scene is set in Arthur’s controversial penthouse flat in the Barbican, the cause of impending legal action - the union wants to free itself of such crippling expenditure, while Arthur wishes to hang onto his ‘grace and favour’ pad. But what we have to keep in mind throughout this play is that it is not meant actually to be Arthur: none of the words, actions and thoughts are his; they are all made up by Ade Morris.
The other major player on stage is the character of Lawrence Davies - and he is based roughly on me! This character, for all his revolutionary past and connections, ends up a broken man, eaten by rage. Worse, he is now a Doncaster councillor implementing Tory cuts which affect even his own son. If I were to follow the example of some of my former comrades’ outrage at Scargill’s portrayal, I would object strongly to this drunken, bitter creature, but it is clear that it is not actually meant to be me - even though many of my anecdotes are put into the mouth of this character. It seems ridiculous to have to labour this point, but in the light of some of the bluster on various miners’ lists, it seems it is necessary.
That people had their lives ruined in the strike, that some were broken (and a few even killed) is without doubt true, and it is this haunting and disturbing feature of the play which quite overpowers the laughter provoked by some of the tales. We, of course, would not choose to tell the story this way. These personal disasters did not characterise the strike, and are not part of our legacy, but none of us can say they are not true of some then and now. However, there have been many other presentations - Billy Elliot, Brassed off and Faith, for example - which tell the story in a more palatable way perhaps and from that different standpoint.
Another bone of contention, I suppose, is the portrayal of Arthur’s flatmate, Barbara, once a young journalist covering the strike. One might search for a real-life person who this might be, but in the end she is not a real person either, so far as we can judge. There is a Scargill biography though ready for publication and Arthur’s long-awaited book, I am assured, is finished - the PR men are biding their time looking out for the right moment to release it. (Doubtless we will all be flayed alive in print.)
But back to the play itself. There is a certain genre that cares to see us miners as hapless victims - pawns in a big game, where all the moves are made by others out of sight. According to this view we were engaged in a sort of class-war ‘charge of the light brigade’, misled and manipulated. Sadly this is one of that genre. The drunk Geordie rages not so much against Thatcher as against Arthur, presumably because somehow he caused it all, or “in his ivory tower” he was somehow unaware of the suffering and grief of his members. There is at least a suggestion that Arthur was obsessed with avenging the defeat of the miners and his hero, AJ Cook, for our defeat in 1926, but that one does not work, given that we probably achieved that in 1972 and 74.
This is a weird play, by anyone’s yardstick. You cannot exactly relax in your seat, as the emotions raw and bitter are bounced round the stage. Actually there is nothing overtly derogatory about Arthur in it. It is just that the play simply does not eulogise him in the manner which his diehard supporters expect. Far from “shite” though, it is complex and not easy - a thread of two or three interwoven lives and histories unfolding in a drunken rage in a Barbican flat.
This scene, however - and the need of one individual to confront Arthur with his own anger - does not encapsulate the story of the Great Strike. It does not tell the tale of heroism, as an important section of our class undertook a conscious attempt to seriously challenge the system. We were not victims and we were not misled by anyone other than Thatcher and National Coal Board chief Ian MacGregor. The stand we made was a conscious, determined choice and, as I never tire of telling folk, we started the strike, not Arthur.
Go and see it - unless you are going to give it the Life of Brian treatment, that is. The fundamentalists just do not get it: this is not Jesus.