"We will be free!" - the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs
Neil Gore of Townsend Productions theatre company both wrote and acts in "We Will Be Free! - the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs." Neil spoke to Steve Bell.
"Our play, set in 1834, follows George and Betsy Loveless' extraordinary story. He was a Methodist minister and leader of the six Dorset farm labourers tried, convicted and condemned to harsh transportation to Australia by an oppressive government.
Few ever returned, given the difficult journey and the slave conditions involved. All this was just for having the temerity to swear a secret oath and form a secret union to fight against a succession of wage cuts inflicted by the local landowner.
As this story that defined the emergence of trade unionism and Chartism is unravelled, we see how the arch tyrant-in-chief James Frampton, local squire and magistrate, springs the trap.
We see how Home Secretary Lord Melbourne delights in ordering dodgy legal proceedings; how labourer Edward Legg betrays the Martyrs; and how the judiciary revel in using his evidence to condemn the Martyrs to imprisonment and transportation to Australia.
We see their families' anguish, the subsequent howl of protest and the battle for their reprieve. Betsy becomes politicised and joins the fight to bring back her husband and participates in the beginnings of the fledgling labour movement.
Turning this epic story into a successful play performed by two people was immensely challenging and very rewarding. As in our first production of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, we use many different theatrical devices to keep the audience on their toes.
Being a two-hander has given us the flexibility to reach a huge audience cross-section by playing vastly different venues, from major regional main-house theatres to arts centres, village halls and community centres, labour and working men's clubs.
Building on Townsend Productions' entertaining theatrical style, packed with surprises, that was developed through our production of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, we tell this vital story using live music, powerful songs of the time with political cartoon, animation and puppetry.
Comparison with present
The actors will play all the characters. They perform at breakneck pace to present this story that raises questions about present day political issues through the experiences of the past.
The play is a reminder of the key issues faced by the labour movement today: increased casualisation of the workforce, diminishing rights at work, individual contracts that ignore pensions and overtime, frozen or reduced wages, cuts to public services, wilful destruction of the welfare system and the hopelessness of poverty.
The union Unite is raising awareness of these issues using education and theatre as a means of stirring people into action and challenging the inequalities workers face, particularly agricultural workers now that the Agricultural Workers Board, that monitored and set wages and working conditions for farmworkers, has recently been abolished by the Con-Dem coalition.
The play is a reminder of times when people, joining together to argue their cause for equality and justice, had a tremendous impact despite not having the vote in a democratic election.
It reveals the beginnings of politicisation of the mass of working people, rights that were fought for, and that we should make sure we do not lose.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs' story is important for the trade union movement and most unions have offered their support through small donations. We will perform the show at some union conferences, at this year's TUC conference and the prestigious Tolpuddle Festival.
The play is aimed really at anybody interested in politics or social history, or anybody who loves theatre, as it is a very theatrical storytelling experience. We try to make the show as accessible as possible to all, so really there is something in it for everyone."