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6 September 2007

Holding Fire

by Jack Shepherd,
The Globe Theatre, London until 5 October

While London theatre rarely concerns itself with labour history, this new play deals with the Chartist movement in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Chartism was the first working-class mass movement.

The People's Charter was a list of demands for democratic rights that included votes for all (only men at this stage), secret ballots and annual elections to Parliament. The Chartists had both reformist and revolutionary wings, lead by William Lovett and Charles Harney respectively, but both faced savage repression from the state.

The play centres on a young woman, on the run from the law, who eventually joins the Chartists. As her story unfolds, showing the cruelty and injustice of Victorian times, significant events from the history of Chartism are portrayed, culminating in the massacre of workers at Newport South Wales in 1839.

Intertwining the personal and political works well theatrically, producing a play that avoids the pitfall, common to political theatre, of being worthy but dull. The execution of a demonstrator convicted for his part in the Newport events is just one of the graphic and effective scenes.

The Globe, a recreation of Shakespeare's theatre has an open space in front of the stage where the audience stands (there are seats as well), and in Holding Fire the actors and action mingle with the audience, to good effect. One disadvantage though is that the theatre is open to the sky and so aircraft noise is a problem, and rain.

Although lively and entertaining, the presentation of selected scenes from the history of Chartism as a back-drop to a personal story means that it could be difficult to get a proper picture of the history of the movement.

Without prior knowledge of Chartism, it could be difficult to get a coherent picture of what the movement was about. Also the clash between Chartism's gradualist and revolutionary wings seemed to be presented as a choice between Lovett's moral persuasion and the Jacobin-style crowd violence of Harney, represented by the insurrection and massacre at Newport.

This misses the point that the Chartists, although many drew inspiration from the French Revolution, advocated specifically proletarian methods of struggle, in keeping with their role as the first mass working-class movement.

This meant that the radical wing saw industrial action, culminating in a revolutionary general strike, as the way to reach their goal, rather than a repeat of the storming of the Bastille. To this end, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was set up in 1834, something that is not mentioned - perhaps a sign of the times we live in now.

Despite this, the play is definitely worth seeing.

Pete Dickenson