This staging of a potent poem of our times gives voice to a class realising its own power, finds Cameron Panting
As the country remembered the terrible events of a year ago, where the tragedy of Grenfell took so many lives, a rehearsed reading of May Days, William Alderson’s impressive elegy for our times, gave form to the continuing anger against a callous and disregarding establishment, and a voice to those deliberately marginalised.
Staged at the brand new Playground Theatre, in the shadow of the tower, the show continued a week of protest and remembrance. Alderson started writing the piece two days before the tragedy, and so it inevitably became a response to it, first being published by Counterfire.
The searing verse takes us through the struggles of the past (being based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem The Mask of Anarchy about the Peterloo massacre written 200 years ago) to the current moment of social crisis, and sees little changed. It paints a picture of a society held back by a careless elite:
Through Britain’s towns and Britain’s fields
Unfettered power makes her way...
That genial rascal with a grin
Who lifts a pint to wish you health –
So long as you have brought them in.
where so many struggle to get by:
Late benefits and meagre pay
Force starving people to the shelves
Of foodbanks which are filled each day
By willing staff, unpaid themselves.’
and brings forth a number of characters, struggling, fighting, caring:
Church and mosque,
we open our hearts, our hands and doors
to all our neighbours
who organise the clothes and toys
This lent itself to a dynamic staging where the actors, performing in traverse, placed at different levels, took on the diverse range of characters, interacting at opportune moments (including a blistering Grime-inspired rap, referencing the union between that scene and the movements for change).
The desperate and broken society depicted, boils over to the unspeakable event this show was put on in aid of:
But then, in dreadful blasphemy,
The metaphor becomes exact –
Where they had burned symbolically,
The living poor now burn in fact.
The potent symbolism present in so much of this piece is given a visual aid with the occasional use of movement, as with the representation of the official response to the tragedy:
Power lets them slip, Her hands too bloody to keep grip, Her ministry grown deaf to prayer.
with the cast collectively failing to catch a baby falling from the tower. But this despairing scene was pregnant with its opposite:
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 …
And the show finished with a striking song - Tayo Aluko’s deep baritone voice carrying the sound of centuries struggle. As an audience, you are made to feel very much a part of that history, and put on at this time, and with donations going to support those fighting for justice for Grenfell, we very much were.
We need more of these shows, which deal directly with the issues of the day and look them straight in the eye. The plethora of shows about Windrush currently on theatre stages across Britain shows that the desire for political work is there, but the significance of pieces like this, is that they are not just about, but a part of the movements for change.
The ruling class can only rule as long as they are seen as legitimate and functional. This show carried with it a message that under the surface, beyond the headlines, they are losing their grip, and we are beginning to realise our own power.
Cameron Panting is National Organiser for Counterfire and is a member of the editorial board. He is active within the People's Assembly and is a member of Stop The War.
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