Review: Strife (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Bertie Carvel directs John Galsworthy’s prescient play about a strike at a tinplate factory in Wales

At first sight, Strife is a play about an old-fashioned labour struggle: a strike at a tinplate factory in Wales in the early part of the 20th century, a staple clash of so many political dramas.

But it’s when playwright John Galsworthy moves away from the politics that the play becomes more subtle. Yes, there’s strife between capital and labour but there’s also strife between the members of the board who are concerned the business can’t take further losses. This is mirrored by the arguments between the men on strike; should they go back to work without wresting any concessions? They’re not supported by their union which adds another dimension. There are also disagreements between the wives of the strikers and between company chairman John Anthony’s two children, Enid and Edgar.

However, the labour dispute is the heart of the play, in particular the contrast between the main players: John Anthony, and strike leader, David Roberts. Galsworthy depicts them as hewn from the same block: a mixture of stubbornness and principle. William Gaunt’s Anthony, with leonine head and a voice as rich a vintage port is a striking presence at the board table. Ian Hughes as Roberts is equally tough at fighting his corner, not yielding in the face of personal tragedy.

Gaunt’s last speech of defiance, urging his fellow members not to give an inch, is the last roar of a wounded lion. "There is only one way of treating men, with the iron hand … yield one demand and they will take six." It’s the cry of a class seeing a layer of privilege removed (it must be remembered that the play was written as the Liberal government of the time was enacting radical workers’ reforms) and Gaunt makes the most of Galsworthy’s prescient words.

Bertie Carvel, making his directorial debut delivers several memorable moments. The opening scene, with a blazing sheet of metal transformed into the boardroom table makes for an arresting beginning – credit to designer, Robert Jones.

And the scene in the street where the men air their opinions as to the worthiness of the strike, while snow falls on them, has a haunting quality. There’s an sense of Julius Caesar about it: the striker who prefaces each part of his powerful speech with "I’m no orator", is as effective as Marc Antony.

There are also good performances from Lizzy Watts and Mark Quartley as Enid and Edgar. They convey well the dilemma of people torn between filial duty and human sympathy. Watts in particular gives us a vivid picture of a woman trying to cope with contrasting emotions.

There’s a topical theme hanging over the play: continued uncertainty over the future of the steel industry in Wales offers a reminder that maybe some of the themes are not quite as old-fashioned as they appear. Credit to Chichester for reviving a play that reminds us that entrenched attitudes may provide the best speeches, but they will, often, stand in the way of progress.

Strife runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10 September.

Read our interview with Bertie Carvel on his directorial debut here