William Alderson’s “magnificent” poem May Days is to be performed by actors in aid of the Grenfell Tower victims to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster
At 6 pm on 16 June there will be a rehearsed reading of May Days at The Playground Theatre in aid of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and within sight of the ruins. It will commemorate the anniversary of that disaster on the same day as a march in support of the victims. Produced by Lynx Theatre and Poetry, this staging of the poem was the inspiration of director Simone Vause, and it will be performed by five actors who are volunteering their services. Among the audience will be Emma Dent Coad, MP for Kensington and Chelsea.
May Days was first published by Counterfire immediately after it was completed. It is a political poem about our times along the lines of The Masque of Anarchy, inspiringly quoted last year by Jeremy Corbyn and written 200 years ago by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley after the Peterloo massacre.
The significance of Jeremy’s surprise opportunity to lead the Labour Party gets a mention in the poem:
Until a careless hand lets drop
A spark of hope into this tinder,
A wisp of flame no-one can stop
A growing blaze no-one can hinder … (125-128)
Against this political background, the relevance of May Days to Grenfell is that the poem was started two days before the fire, and that disaster became a key image for the poem:
But then, in dreadful blasphemy,
The metaphor becomes exact –
Where they had burned symbolically,
The living poor now burn in fact. (129-132)
May Days not only attacks “The obnoxious self-importance and callous contempt of Power, of our ruling class”, to quote Counterfire’s review, it sets out to give a voice to the diversity of poor people, too often lumped together as though their individuality is of no importance. This voice is given through references to specific individual experiences (all genuine) and through the use of different poetic forms, including a section in the style of ‘grime’ music, reflecting the concert organised in support of the victims at the time.
It was this degree of characterisation which gave Simone the idea of a theatrical performance, and she has divided the poem up, with my help, into those many individual voices to reinforce the idea of just who “the many” are who are suffering at the hands of “the few”. Sadly Lynx could not afford (at this time) the full-scale production Simone wanted, but she is working with some excellent experienced actors and with new young ones.
Tayo Aluko is a Nigerian-born actor who is in international demand for performances of his plays about the famous political singer Paul Robeson (Call Mr Robeson) and Britain’s first black judge (Just and Ordinary Lawyer).
Roger Gartland worked at the National Theatre for many years, before he and other National Theatre actors set up their own company, Not The National Theatre. He now performs one-man shows with his company Solo Ventures, including celebrated readings from Dickens.
Karen McCaffrey is an actress and singer with long experience in small-scale theatre, though she also performed in a major national tour of Calendar Girls. She will bring her own experience of struggle to bear on her performance.
Shane Chester and Tiannah Viechweg are actors at the start of their careers. The poem is about their present and their future.
Lynx is very grateful to The Playground Theatre for giving it the space for this performance, and I should say that May Days is appropriately between the two last performances of Shirleymander, a play about Shirley Porter and the Westminster Council ‘homes for votes’ scandal of the 1980s. Do book a seat for that production too.
Tickets to the performance at The Playground Theatre are free, and booking a seat is recommended. Most importantly, we want people to bring generous donations to give to a Grenfell charity. This performance is, after all, for those victims who suffer
as the promises break and we are betrayed (225).
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