Weavers of dreams

As Ernst Toller's 'The Machine Wreckers' reaches the Cottesloe, Katie Mitchell takes her cast on a day trip to Nottingham to get hands- on experience of the technology that caused the Luddite riots
Click to follow
9am. An exhausted company gathers outside the stage door of the National Theatre to board the coach to Nottingham. Ten out of the 18-strong party have a gruelling schedule at the moment, rehearsing The Machine Wreckers by day and performing Richard II most evenings.

12am. We arrive at the Stocking Weavers Museum in Ruddington, a village on the outskirts of Nottingham. The museum comprises several weavers' cottages, a workshop with stocking frames, outhouses for pigs and coal and the manager's house. It was built in 1829 and stopped operating as a factory at the turn of the century. The main industry, connected with the weavers and therefore with the Luddites in Nottinghamshire, was lace- making and stocking-weaving. The workshop that houses the frames is long with windows lining the outside wall. The frames were bunched tightly together, restricting the movement of the operators.

A tart and witty woman, Mandy Wilson, who once worked at the museum, tells us that most of the stocking-weavers would have suffered from stoops, shortsightedness, chest complaints, and calloused thumbs from the work. They would be paid by the piece, sometimes working a 16-hour day. In the windows hung glass spheres containing water and nitric acid which gave light during the night and the short winter days.

We watched Mandy weave. It took her two minutes to complete one row: a 19th-century stocking-weaver would have been able to do between 34 and 44 rows a minute.

Weaving was a highly skilled job, requiring a five-year apprenticeship. You could understand why these craftsmen resented the introduction of a stocking frame that produced poorer quality stockings, operated by men who had only served a six-month apprenticeship. This was one of the reasons that the Luddites wrecked the new stocking frames in Nottinghamshire, although this workshop, tucked out of the way, apparently escaped notice.

Mandy talks about the workers as if they have left just a few years ago; her enthusiasm is infectious. But there is no doubt that we are looking at the conditions of slave labour. The weavers rented their frames from the manager and had to pay for their upkeep and for breakages; they and their large families lived in inhuman conditions in cramped cottages, also rented from the manager, and bought food on site from the manager's grocery stores.

The sun shines as we walk around the workshops and the yard outside and it is almost impossible to imagine sweated labour taking place in this sunny, rather pretty town, surrounded by lush fields and woods. As the actors walk about the site and watch and listen to Mandy talking, I can see them digesting the information and trying to fit themselves into this alien environment.

We have talked a great deal in the rehearsal room about the working conditions of the Luddites in the 19th century, but it is the concrete reality of this visit that brings it home to the cast in a practical and sensual fashion - I can see the actors stooping backs, or flexing muscles as Mandy weaves.

As a director, I often worry about doing too much research work in rehearsals. In the first week we spent a great deal of the time reading relevant material - even before rehearsals the actors are sent extensive reading lists. Of course, all this is crucial, but sometimes a one-day field trip can bring into sharp and immediate focus something that might take days to absorb in the rehearsal room.

Back onto the coach now, bound for Wollaton Hall - and a picnic.

1.30pm. Wollaton Hall, on the outskirts of Nottingham, is an imposing late 16th-century house standing high on a hill, with a deer park and industrial museum. In Toller's play the manufacturer Ure, who has introduced the new machine which the Luddites plan to destroy, is described as living on a hill and I felt that this house might provide us with a possible image for the play. As we picnic in the park, it is a real relief to be out of the airless, windowless rehearsal room. Most people look pale and exhausted in the sunlight.

After lunch we toil up the hill to the industrial museum. The most important feature is a gigantic, green-and-red, steam-powered beam engine. We are all taken aback by the size of the machine: you can imagine the shock and fear it would have caused to a group of weavers from a community like Ruddington, who were used to their hand-operated frames. There follows a lot of discussion about the practical reality of machine wrecking - the Luddites would have needed considerable force to have had even a small impact on this huge iron monster.

In the play the weavers are planning to wreck a new steam-operated spinning machine called a Mule. Their own hand-looms, mostly operated at home, worked three spindles, the Mule a thousand. The manufacturer no longer needed skilled hand-weavers and the community was faced with 75 per cent job losses overnight. The only skill required for Mule operatives was manual dexterity and small fingers, so a male-dominated work force was changed to one of young women and children. The weaving community had already coped with the introduction of the Spinning Jenny, which drove 18 spindles, but the sudden leap to the Mule must have been devastating.

Going from the intricate skills of the wooden stocking-frames at Ruddington to the vast, iron beam-engine cutting through three floors of the museum leaves us reeling: one can only guess at the feelings of the weavers whose very existence was threatened.

Trade unions were illegal in England from 1800 to 1824, during the period of the Luddite movement. There was no legal regulation of working hours or conditions. It must have been a field day for the manufacturer. Given our basic understanding of the way in which the beam-engine worked, it is relatively easy to work out how to disable it temporarily with very little brute force, but for the Luddites it would have been a very different matter.

We have already discussed the parallel between the machines of the 19th century and Internet in the 1990s - all of us admitting fear of it, although we are not totally ignorant on the matter. However, faced with a computer, I doubt that any of us would know how to disable it by simply pressing the keys and, if it jeopardised our livelihood in the way that those machines did the livelihood of those 19th-century craftsmen, I imagine our response, much like that of the Luddites, might well be to take an axe and smash it to smithereens!

3.30pm. We leave Wollaton Hall and drive to the Lace Market area of Nottingham. Vicki Mortimer, our designer, wants to look at some of the old warehouses and factories that would have housed the weaving workers and the machines. As we walk around looking at the immaculately renovated buildings, it is difficult to imagine what it would have been like to live and work here in 1815.

We also visit the courtroom and stand on the spot, just outside, where the Luddites who were caught were hanged. Those who managed to escape the death penalty were taken from the courtroom and thrown on to barges waiting on the river that ran directly beneath the courthouse, to be transported abroad.

4.30pm. Off to an exhibition at the National Museum of Justice titled "Condemned". (I thought that it would provide insights into the legal and prison systems of the time - at the end of our play all the weavers are carted off to court and presumably to their deaths.)

The building itself, with the original wooden courtroom and labyrinth of cells, washrooms, and a prison yard should be eerie and evocative - but the kitsch displays and corny sound effects destroy the atmosphere. We walk around the place in total disbelief. This crude attempt to conjure up the past, complete with burning rubber bodies, simply leaves us bemused and angry at the Americanisation of the present.

During the period of the Luddites (1811-1816), literally hundreds of men were tried, hanged or transported from this building - it was a place of genocide. But it is only the scratched names and dates on the cell walls, silent tokens of the prison's 19th-century inmates, that give any inkling of that reality. What should be a quiet and sacred memorial to their lives has been turned into a kitsch horror pageant. Progress! And it was technology that has made this possible.

I think of the play, of weaver Albert's apocalyptic vision of the development of machinery:

"The machine ... is not dead! / It reaches out a claw to clutch the hearts of men./ Against the villages roll marching hosts, / The fields are withered by their sulphurous breath / And stony wastes are left where children die / And men are governed by a cruel clock / That beats a doleful time / One shall be arm, another leg, a third brain / And the soul, the soul is dead."

n Katie Mitchell's production of 'The Machine Wreckers' opens in the Cottesloe at the Royal National Theatre on 11 Aug (previews from 4 Aug). There will also be five performances in Nottingham at the Low Level Station from 8-11 Nov. The company's visit was arranged in conjunction with the Nottingham Playhouse