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Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage

A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

September 18, 2017
6 min read

Jason May (Rob), Sion Tudor Owen (Mark) and Simon Nehan (Kevin) in We’re Still Here. Photo: Dimitris Legakis / National Theatre Wales

AJ: Can we start by talking about the play’s roots?

RW: In early 2016 there were threats Tata Steelworks would close, transforming Port Talbot in South Wales from steel town to ghost town. We were up in Merthyr at the time, thinking about the radical history of that town, and figures like Aneurin Bevan, and we were asking questions about today’s working leaders: Where are they? Who are they? How do we get them back?

When the ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign kicked off we were drawn straightaway to what was unfolding in Port Talbot and how that community came together and stood up. And how they managed to get their story out not only to Port Talbot, but around the world.

We were inspired because we were thinking, if we are looking for working class leaders, then they are our working class leaders, fighting for something they believe in, saying no.

So with Evie Manning [co-artistic director, Common Wealth] and playwright Rachel Trezise, we started interviewing people from the town, people from the union, people who were against the unions and people involved in the campaign. We wanted to hear from the widest range of people so we could paint the truest picture of what was going on in the town.

AJ: How much space do you feel there is for the representation of working class experience in contemporary theatre?

We were really sick of theatre being for the middle classes. We wanted to make theatre that truly represented communities like our own

RW: I feel the class thing so strongly in the industry I work in. Theatre is controlled by the middle classes. It’s completely on their terms.

We were really sick of theatre being for the middle classes. We wanted to make theatre that spoke to everyone and truly represented communities like our own. So we set up in 2011 and the name of our company, Common Wealth, says it all. We wanted to celebrate what it means to be ‘common’!

I’m making theatre in an industry run by people who, most of the time, have come there because of a hand up, an open door. I definitely came through the back door. I never ever imagined I’d be running a theatre company. Having a working class woman running a theatre company is political!

AJ: How far does your work come from your own experience?

RW: Growing up I loved telling stories and making theatre. I grew up on the St Mellons estate in Cardiff. We were never allowed to feel that our experience was of value, or that we could do things like work in theatre. The theatre never came to St Mellons.

Seeing the world around you – young kids who feel like things are not possible, or people doing incredible things that are not celebrated – it keeps you driven.

That’s what comes from those things in my life. That sense of urgency and the sense of fight in the work that I create.

AJ: Can you tell me why three women made a play with a virtually all-male cast?

RW: We were interested in male purpose. What happens when male purpose is lost, and jobs are lost? What does that do to people? What does that do to our heads and hearts? Male pride – what happens when you shake the core of that? We don’t talk about these things…

What does it mean to be a white, working class man working somewhere like the steelworks? How do white working class men get represented? After Brexit I felt there was an attack on white working class men from Wales – liberals literally turning their knife on these communities. The men I know, they talk about the world, they know about world politics. They are intelligent. They are not racist. Actually, they are a group that have been shafted.

AJ: So what has your process taught you about working class leaders today? Who are they?

RW: In the play, there’s a stand off between a union man and this man Rob, who has been against the unions. There’s this moment where he stands up and becomes our working class leader. Right next to you, he says, ‘Where do you come from? Who are you?’ These are words Jeremy Corbyn said to us when we saw him during his election campaign at the Aneurin Bevan stones: he said to us, always be proud of who you are and where you come from.

So the audience see Rob become a working class leader, saying the things a working class leader might say. Rob’s saying quite profound things. He’s saying that we need more social space to come together, to talk like we used to. But in a language that is more universal and down to earth. The hope is that this encourages us to think about the things we have, the things we’ve lost and what it takes to fight for them.

His narrative is that he’s working on the shop floor. He’s never trusted the unions. He hates the EU. He’s raging, fucked off with the world around him, but he’s an intelligent man. He’s also a bit of a joker. They call him ‘Bonehead’. But beneath there’s a real people’s leader.

The union guy says to him: ‘What would you do?’ Bonehead is criticising the union guy. He’s saying: ‘Don’t become the victim. You took the job.’ Finally, he explodes and he says: ‘Well I wouldn’t do nothing. I would do something!’ And he talks about who he is, where he’s come from, what it means to be from that town, Port Talbot. He has this massive speech about bringing people together, talking to people, listening to people, talking to your neighbours, not worrying if your neighbour voted Leave, and taking back agency and control.

Rob goes from being the bonehead character to being a man that believes in himself, and the power in his town, in his community, in his people, in being alive, all of those ideals that it feels like we’re losing. The misrepresented steps forward. He represents.

We’re Still Here, written by Rachel Trezise with National Theatre of Wales and Common Wealth, runs until 30 September in Port Talbot. Rhiannon White is co-artistic director of Common Wealth and Adam Johannes is convenor of the Cardiff People’s Assembly.

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