Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny