Holding Fire!

Friday, 3 August, 2007

The sheer size of Shakepeare's Globe Theatre is more than adequate to stage an epic. And in many respects, such is the nature of Jack Shepherd's play concerning the political reform movement in the first half of the 19th century. Ranging over almost every corner of the Globe's cavernous space, the actors pop up in the yard, in the seating bays and above and on the stage itself. It's almost an assault on all fronts, with the audience being engaged in debate and even harangued by the actors. At the end, there's a very moving scene which almost takes us beyond the theatrical and into the realms of 19th century reality, when a man is hanged in the yard, right there in front of our eyes. Director, Mark Rosenblatt, and his team have done almost everything they can to fully utilise the Globe's space to bring us as close as possible to the action and make us a feel a part of it. Even so, it fails to convey the monumental misery that was the lot of the working class in the early 19th century because, hanging apart, it depends on our imaginations for its real effect.

There are several threads to Jack Shepherd's story. The first is about the Chartists and their confrontation with the political establishment. The second is concerned with a poor London girl who's taken in by a wealthy patron and given a job as a scullery maid, but eventually joins the Chartists after a murder is committed in the house where she works.

In a sense, 'Holding Fire' is about a revolution that might have been. The Chartists campaigned for social and political reform. In particular, they sought universal suffrage - but only for men over 21. Their political demands would be viewed today – by those who care to bother themselves with such things – as conservative and more about common sense than revolutionary zeal. However, the Chartists and others in the political reform movement, captured the imagination of the down-trodden poor and galvanised them into action. The problem was that the Chartists quite literally held their fire, choosing a peaceful approach, even though it was clear that the ruling classes were happy to use any force at their disposal – including cavalry and troops armed with canon.

Shepherd's epic piece is faithful to history as well as to the problems the Chartists faced. And it pulls no punches in terms of the means that Parliament and the Government used in order to destroy the reform movement. However, the two-story approach introduces some confusion. There are a large number of scenes, located in numerous parts of the country. And there are a large number of characters which requires that members of the company double-up in different roles. Even though I understand the economics involved, I still find it confusing to adjust to different actors playing different characters – sometimes only a few seconds apart. Things always start to get muddy especially when it's not just a question of making up numbers.

The love story of Lizzie and her boot boy boyfriend, Will, further muddied the waters. It gave a kind of Bonnie and Clyde feel to the piece which didn't seem to help in the development of the overall theme.

The Globe is a great theatre, but there are times when it lets down actors and playwrights alike. I think this is one of those occasions because the audience has to rely on imagination to draw their own picture of what life in the early 19th century was really like for the working class. They can't possibly be expected to do that. And a dingy Punch and Judy show, or men wearing mud-stained pants doesn't even come close. The problem is that you can't imagine what you don't have any experience of. And even references in Shepherd's script can't bring the appalling reality to life. I think this is a case where sets were essential, but the play also requires more focus on the individual players, in particular the Chartist leaders and their backgrounds. It would have been more pertinent to help us see what they were trying to escape – what they saw every day that made them seek a new course.

I admire Jack Shepherd for even attempting to bring the story of the Chartists to the stage. Shepherd's script tries hard to describe the misery of the working class, many of whom felt like “strangers in our own land – a race apart”, and as one character says: “woke up each morning, surprised you're still alive”. I also have great sympathy for the enormous challenges that the director and the company took on. I suspect they knew all along that it was going to be a rough ride, and one that in the end, might not fulfill all their dreams. Though it's a thought provoking play, much more was needed to provide a real insight into the conditions of the working class that inspired the social and political reform movement in this country.

By the end of the 19th century, most of the Chartist ambitions had been achieved. It's a sad fact, though, that the majority of the present voting population now either can't be bothered to exercise their voting rights, or are totally apathetic about politics in general. I suspect this is largely because one type of slavery - working in dreadful conditions for a pittance - has been eagerly transferred into the slavery of consumerism. As long as we have the latest iPod, who cares what happens in Parliament?

(Peter Brown)

Production photo by Andy Bradshaw

Looking for the best seats...