In a recent online Q&A, David Hare, Britain's leading state-of-the-nation playwright, was asked "where did it all begin to unravel?" "The key event was the Miners' Strike," he replied, "and to my great shame I didn't realise it at the time." Thirty years on, a gripping new play at London's Hampstead Theatre dramatises the bitter events of 1984-85. "Wonderland" isn't the mature reflection of someone who lived through the period. It is by the daughter of a miner who did.
For Hare, the Miners' Strike was the moment a government "attacked the idea of community and began seriously dismantling the post-war settlement". For Beth Steel—whose second play this is—two other themes come to the fore: in-fighting and male identity.
The strike lasted a year, and Steel, who spent two-and-a-half years researching the subject, is at pains to present the arguments on both sides—literally. The play opens with Milton Friedman (Andrew Readman) introducing the notion of the free market and saying that "this is the story of that idea". But we then watch the Tory energy secretary, Peter Walker (Andrew Havill), devote as much energy to restraining the gung-ho ideologues within his own party as he does in taking on the miners. On the other side of the dispute, Arthur Scargill's decision, as president of the NUM, to call a strike without a ballot led to unbreachable divisions among miners. In "Wonderland", we see both sides fighting themselves.
Early on, two 16-year-olds are about to get in the cage and go down the pit for the first time; once there, they will go three miles "in". (In Edward Hall's production, all this is thrillingly staged.) It's a journey, also, from youth to manhood. Beth Steel powerfully captures how generations have endured the hard work because their fathers and grandfathers did so too (we hear them sing, "I'm the son of a son of a son of a collier's son"). Below ground, the miners—in hard hats, Y-fronts and kneepads—are grimy, sweaty, blunt and funny and these early scenes bristle with male camaraderie. Like combat soldiers, each depends on the others to save his life.
But once the strike starts, and they are above ground and picketing, they are diminished figures, robbed of their self-esteem (in their work, in their ability to provide). All the female voices, from girlfriends and wives to newsreaders and Mrs Thatcher, are off-stage—except for the playwright's, of course. This is a proud male world and, ironically, a deeply conservative one. Perhaps it took a female writer to bring that out.
Wonderland Hampstead Theatre until July 26th