If history had worked out differently, Joe Corrie's 1926 play, In Time O' Strife, would be a staple of the international dramatic repertoire, spoken of with the same sense of reverence as early twentieth century peers such as J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey. As it is, both Corrie and his gritty study of a Fife mining family's hardships during the General Strike that took place the year the play was written have all but been airbrushed out of that history. The last major revival of In Time O' Strife was in 1982, when John McGrath's 7:84 company rescued it from obscurity and presented it at the Citizens Theatre as part of the company's Clydebuilt season of plays. It was a season that also included included Ena Lamont Stewart's equally neglected working class epic, Men Should Weep.
This week, however, director Graham McLaren takes Joe Corrie home to Fife in a brand new take on In Time O' Strife for the National Theatre of Scotland. Rather than stick to the do play's realist roots, McLaren looks set to present a bold adaptation which will interweave fragments of Corrie's plethora of other plays, poems and songs, the latter played live by a contemporary indie-folk ensemble led by composer and former member of Zoey Van Goey, MJ McCarthy.
“The genesis of all this was when we were doing Staging The Nation,” McLaren says of the NTS' fifth anniversary series of events that looked forward to Scottish theatre's future while excavating its neglected past. “One of the first events was a rehearsed reading of In Time O' Strife, which [playwright] Peter Arnott had suggested. I didn't really know it then, but I responded to what I thought were some really powerful elements to it, and that led me to question why it hasn't been produced other than in the 7:84 production, or at least I couldn't find any evidence of any other productions, anyway.
“I spent a lot of time with the play after that, and it seemed like an early draft of a great play. That got me wondering about what would happen if In Time O' Strife was a new play coming into the NTS, what could we do with the young Joe Corrie as well as the play? That led me to get in touch with Corrie's daughter, and I got access to these fifty other plays that Corrie wrote, many of which were one-act plays performed by amateur dramatics groups, because he couldn't get them done professionally. [Playwright] Iain Heggie and I went through all of these plays and read them, and suddenly In Time O' Strife became a show that felt necessary.”
The short answer as to why Corrie couldn't get his work on is that In Time O' Strife, like Men Should Weep, were too left wing, too real or just too near the knuckle for a theatrical establishment led by playwright and founder of the Citizens Theatre Ronald Mavor, aka James Bridie, to deal with.
“Bridie actually discouraged Corrie and Stewart as writers,” says McLaren, somewhat aghast. “He said he didn't want that kind of theatre in Scotland. As a consequence of this, Corrie wasn't encouraged as a dramatist during his lifetime, but I'm convinced that if he and Ena Lamont Stewart and others had of been encouraged by a proper national theatre, then we would have had a lot more great plays by them all.”
Joe Corrie was born in 1894 in Stirlingshire, and his family moved to Cardenden in Fife when he was still a child. Corrie first went down the pit aged fourteen, and started writing after the First World War. His poems, sketches and stories appeared in assorted socialist journals of the day, while his poems were collected in three volumes, The Image O' god and Other Poems, Rebel Poems and Scottish Pride and Other Poems. These inspired T.S. Eliot to describe Corrie as the greatest Scots poet since Robert Burns.
The latter was a subject of Corrie's in his play, Robert Burns, which was last seen on the back of 7:84's take on In Time O' Strife in a 1986 production directed by David Hayman for the Scottish Theatre Company at the Citizens Theatre. With Burns presented as an anti-establishment figure, the memories of the 1984 UK Miners Strike, when Britain was in the midst of a civil war brought on by the closure of still fertile pits by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's hench-men, were still fresh. For the Fife communities ripped apart by the strike, this new production of In Time O' Strife brings things home even more.
“It's a play about 1984 as much as 1926,” McLaren points out. “Corrie wrote In Time O' Strife for no other reason than to raise money for the strikers, and what's chilling is how history repeats itself. I spent some time with the miners in Fife who'd been through the strike in 1984, and know how much their world and their community was damaged by what happened. Corrie predicted it. Everything he said in In Time O' Strife, about how the striking miners were treated, you can see and hear in documentaries about Orgreave.”
With this in mind, as with his 2011 production of Men Should Weep, again with the NTS, McLaren is taking a radical look at In Time O' Strife.
“I want to look at it the play like it's Lorca or Synge and O'Casey,” he says, “and think, what are we going to do with it. Rather than look at it as a history play, I want to capture the spirit of it, the revolutionary spirit of it. Without Joe Corrie we wouldn't have had 7-84 or Wildcat or Borderline, and I want to embrace what we've learnt about shows that are popular and political, from the Three Estaites to Black Watch, and which also entertain.
“we're in a very fortunate position in Scotland to be able to influence what our national theatre does. You can't not respond politically to that, and make sure plays like In Time O' Strife are done, and create a perfect storm that makes it possible to put them on. I'm genuinely proud to be part of that,. Just to be able to shine a spotlight on Joe Corrie. It's time.”
In Time O' Strife, Pathhead Hall, Kirkcaldy, until October 12th.
The Herald, October 3rd 2013