Artsreach, Burton Bradstock Village Hall, 11 October 2013
Setting the poignant, ever-resonant story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the framework of a traditional Mummers Play is an inspired move as Neil Gore’s thought-provoking play instantly smashes the fourth wall and sets about creating an informal atmosphere more akin to the village pub or festival tent than a theatre or arts centre.
Opening with a pocket Mummers story, as allegory, in which St George slays the dragon, even after it was brought back to life by the doctor’s magic potion and releases the beautiful princess, sets the stage for an epic story that sees six Dorset farm labourers uprooted from their village homes and transported in chains to Van Dieman’s Land in Australia for the ‘crime’ of swearing an oath in forming a secret union to fight against successive wage cuts imposed by the local landowner’s tenant farmers.
The Mummers framework is continued throughout with a Jack-in-the-Green, a Tosspot, even Beezlebub and without it the sheer scale of the story would be beyond a humble two-hander. But Gore instantly establishes the story as an old-fashioned struggle between Good and Evil, as ordinary working people pay the terrible price for the landowners’ greed exercised under the Enclosure Acts, which enabled them to grab common land and exploit it mercilessly to feed the factory fodder workforce demanded by Britain’s burgeoning factory cities.
The language is ripe and fruity, the goodies and baddies well defined as the audience is encouraged to cheer and boo accordingly.
The human aspect of such a vast and far-reaching story is eloquently told through its bearing on Methodist lay preacher George Loveless (Gore) and Betsy (Elizabeth Eves), his feisty wife. Fearing for their livelihood but unable to scrape a meager living from the pittance farm hands like George are paid – a full three shillings a week less than their Hampshire counterparts – he assembles a delegation of six men to visit landowner James Frampton to petition a wage rise. He agrees, but insists it will be paid by his tenants not his own purse.
Before long their pay is cut by a shilling a week and in response George forms The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest and protect its members’ families from the worst excesses of exploitation. Frampton complains to the Prime Minister, the members of the Friendly Society are arrested, charged and found guilty of breaking an obscure law enacted to suppress mutiny among marines. On 19 March 1834 they are sentenced to seven years’ transportation.
Intended as a clear signal to working people that collectivism was not to be tolerated by their masters, the case galvanised liberals to make common cause with proto-socialists as the Dorchester Committee organised massed rallies calling for the farm workers to be pardoned and collected 800,000 signatures for their release. Finally, almost two years to the day after they had been sentenced and following several attempts to avoid the embarrassment of a complete U-turn, Home Secretary Lord John Russell signed their free pardon.
It’s a massive story, but it cracks along and Gore – who also adapted Townsend Productions’ touring production of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – does well to communicate it clearly and with great wit through verse and song, with musical arrangements by revered folk musician John Kirkpatrick. It would be easy for this TUC-sponsored production to preach solely to the converted, but it doesn’t. Its truths are self-evident its sympathies lie on the side of justice.
The actors humanise the story with sympathetic performances of words and music, their voices blending well in the songs with lyrics drawn in part from historic sources including the Chartist hymn book and dialect poet William Barnes.
The impact of the Industrial Revolution on rural Britain remains a sorely overlooked chapter of our social history, not least in the county that effectively acted as midwife in the birth of the Trade Union movement.
We Will be Free goes some way to redressing that balance.
We Will Be Free is folk theatre at its absolute best.