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18 October 2017

Theatre: We're Still Here

Powerful picture of the Port Talbot steel workers' struggle

Geoff Jones, Swansea Socialist Party

The future of Port Talbot steelworks, the last big steel-making plant in Wales, is hanging by a hair.

A year ago owners Tata Steel threatened to close the plant, destroy the only large employer in Port Talbot and throw 6,000 out of work. Their main complaint was the size of the retired workers' pension fund.

Under the threat of closure, the steel workers - but not the pensioners - were forced to vote for one of two options, either of which meant a cut in pensions. 'We're Still Here' dramatises the effect of this threat on the workers.

It is like no other play. For a start, there is no theatre with comfortable seats facing a stage. The action takes place in a huge, aircraft-hangar-sized shed, part of the old steelworks, lit only by spotlights.

The audience is ushered in, and stands around or moves while the action takes place around and among them. Some parts are played by professionals, and others by actual steelworkers themselves.

Most of the action consists of monologues.

An old ex-worker describes the first few days of unemployment - first the feeling of freedom to stay in bed in the morning, soon the gaping hole in his life. A group of workers pushing a machine through the crowd talks about the comradeship of working together.

A young ex-worker talks about trips to the jobcentre and being told to look for 'opportunities' in retail. A sort of Greek chorus speaks of the grass where the huge Ebbw Vale works once stood, and runs through the battles of Welsh workers, from the 1831 Merthyr rising to the 1984-85 miners' strike.

Finally, the audience is invited to sit around in a circular discussion mimicking a trade union branch meeting.

One worker finds it too much for him and dashes out. Another berates the union for not taking a harder line. A union official describes how hard he had fought management, even with trips to speak to the owners in Mumbai, wrecking his marriage.

The performance ends with a feeling of 'well, what's to be done?' "We're still here" - the anthem of Welsh nationalism - sounds more like a cry for help than one of defiance.

The whole experience gave a powerful picture of the feelings of steel workers. It obviously hit home with the audience, a mixture of local people - including present and former steel workers - and regular theatregoers.

Sadly there was no talk of the wider picture of the economy - or of the only permanent solution: the nationalisation of steelmaking, and the heights of the wider economy, under democratic workers' management and control.




http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/26324