Committed Account

Theatre: THE MACHINE WRECKERS Cottesloe National Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
Later this year, the RSC will stage Lord Byron's Cain in a welcome, if overdue, acknowledgement of his underrated dramatic gifts. Meanwhile, the poet himself makes an appearance in Katie Michell's Cottesloe production of The Machine Wreckers, the 1922 play by Ernst Toller. Byron's scathing maiden speech in the House of Lords - which argued that the frame-breaking weavers of Nottingham had been "famished into guilt" and that the death penalty, then being debated, was a peculiar remedy for destitution - is the basis for the prologue to a drama that focuses as much on the splits within the labouring masses as on the conflict between factory-owner and worker.

Colin Tierney, the actor who plays Byron, also takes on the role of Jimmy Cobbett, the young proletarian idealist who passionately opposes frame- breaking. He does so on the grounds that the machine could be enlisted to the workers' cause and improve their lives, if they waited until they could put up a united, nationwide fight against the bosses.

It's from the character of Jimmy that the play's weaknesses largely stem. The machine-breakers eventually beat him to death, egged on by Ron Cook's hunchbacked, devious Wibley, who resents the fact that Jimmy replaces him as the weavers' leader. In truly taut political drama, envious pragmatism is in tension with an idealism that is also seen to have some personal taint, as is the case with Cassius and Brutus in Julius Caesar. But in Toller's play there's too great an imbalance.

Wibley's dependence on his high standing with the men (which he will prostitute his wife to maintain) corrupts his political position. By contrast, Jimmy's main flaw is just the misfortune of being the younger brother of Henry (Crispin Letts), a class-traitor whose position as overseer in the factory gives Wibley the means of smearing the idealistic sibling as a double-agent in the eyes of the masses. No impurity of motive, not even a psychological need to cling to innocence, sullies Jimmy's visionary zeal. The right deed for the wrong reason (or vice-versa) equals drama; the right deed for the right reason equals rigor mortis.

Michell's production is played on a striking set of rusting iron panels and pillars, topped with a walkway across which a symbolic black-cowled, sickle-bearing Death-figure silently moves. The political daring of the climactic (and first) scene of machine-wrecking is conveyed by giving its effects the feel of an almost supernatural blasphemy. Great hostile jets of steam hiss up at the workers, who smash the frame under an epileptically jerky light before being left to blunder around in darkness.

On the other hand, the fact that cast members at times have to make up the numbers in gangs of protesting women or in starving families, regardless of age or gender, adds a charade-like distance to some scenes of ghastly suffering and internecine strife. It's the inertness of the play, though, not this committed account of it, that may make you emerge from the Cottesloe impressed less by the gross injustices you have witnessed than by how unmoved you've been permitted to remain.