Folk opera unveils tale of political strike

Artists create work for many different reasons, but rarely do they do it just for work. Something else inevitably drives them to share their messages, whether they are personal or global, driven by an artist’s own experience, that of someone else they have come across, or an experience faced by millions. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, condemned to spend eternity sharing a story, artists have to communicate what’s important to them, or they cease to exist as artists. In recent years there has been a huge increase in art tackling issues of mental health, of equality and of climate change – some of the major personal, social and global challenges facing us today.

However, one source of inspiration that has never gone away is politics. At its best, politics is the use of democratic debate to find the route of greatest benefit to a nation, and while debate can happen across the floor in the House of Commons, across the studio on a television show or across the breakfast table with the day’s newspaper in hand, it can also happen across the divide between stage and audience in a theatre.

I spoke to Townsend Productions’ Neil Gore, one of the writers of the new touring folk opera Rouse, Ye Women, about bringing politics to the stage.

“It’s very important that we break down barriers and that the audience contribute to the atmosphere of the performance. Ultimately it brings the show to life and raises the audience’s consciousness to the subject matter and issues that are dealt with in the play.”

Rouse, Ye Women tells the story of Mary Macarthur, the defiant trade union leader who led the strike of the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath in 1910.

“Her story, and the story of the women who risked what little they earned from their work to go on strike, needs to be told,” said Neil. “It has so many relevant connections with working conditions that so many workers in poorly paid jobs are confronted with today. We felt it was time that her story should be told to show people that these struggles have been fought and won in the past.”

“She led the fight to draw public attention to the plight of sweated labour, and in particular women workers at the turn of the last century. Our projects are about people who should be revered and celebrated, but are often forgotten figures of history, largely because their achievements are scorned by the rich and powerful in society.”

Unlike previous work, Townsend Productions have chosen to tell this story as a ballad opera. Neil explained, “Songs have always been an important feature of our work. There are so many good songs written about the struggle of working people. They readily communicate the story and the passions associated with the topics and people in our projects, reflecting directly the feelings and emotions of the time.

They are central to this story – the songs carry the message and character of the time – so we have chosen to tell it with street ballads, music hall song, hymns and protest songs. However, whilst that may make the show accessible and fun, that doesn’t hide the importance and seriousness of the subject matter – apart from climate and the environment, there is no issue more important. This is something Mary Macarthur and many like her realised in the 1900s. It was unhealthy for society to allow people to be degraded and devalued when there was the means available to make life better for all.”

James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

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