Mary After The Queen
Back in 1985 there was a vast disused brewery warehouse on the north-western edge of Stratford sitting on a site that is now occupied by smart apartments and a massive shopping complex. One day the Royal Shakespeare Company decided the old warehouse would make an innovative and rather daring acting space for a rather daring and innovative new play called Mary, After the Queen. The play was about local working people in the years between the wars, and starred the formidable Peggy Mount.
When I saw the show the actors had to shout to make themselves heard above the incredible din made by a nightly gathering of starlings happily chatting to each other on the roof girders: even Peggy Mount had to shout louder than she normally did.
It was dire, it was dirty (with interval drinks available from a couple of wonky vending machines), but it was, at the height of Thatcherism, a space that was seen as hugely significant by the theatre intellectuals, with the play itself considered something of a working-class protest against Maggie and her regime.
It all started when Angela Hewins wrote her book, The Dillen, about George Hewins, her husband’s grandfather. George was a bit of ‘character’ who had supported the Stratford brewing industry almost single-handedly. He spoke and looked like old man Steptoe.
I only ever spoke to him once, back in the 1960s. He was walking toward me, with the use of a zimmer frame, and as we passed he grabbed my left arm in a vice-like grip and asked me what the effing time was.
After I told him he grunted, let go of my arm, spat onto the pavement and trundled off still growling the ‘f ’ word.
Angela’s book is a superb piece of social history, and beautifully written (although you won’t find George mouthing the ’f ’ word), and it was inevitable that the RSC (then run by Trevor Nunn) would see The Dillen (with George portrayed as a working-class rebel) as ideal material with which to clobber Mrs T.
The book was quickly turned into a play by Angela, and the RSC’s writer in residence at the time, Ron Hutchinson, and director Barry Kyle. It was produced in 1983 as a promenade piece that kicked-off at RSC’s The Other Place, before marching around Stratford doing scenes on relevant street corners (again with Peggy Mount), before ending-up back at The Other Place. It was hugely successful, and perhaps for the first time many Stratford people were able to access theatre, and be part of the action on those street corners, including several newer versions of George Hewins, who made their own, very colourful verbal contributions.
Mary, After The Queen, Angela Hewins’ sequel to The Dillen was a book about the lives of George Hewins’ children, especially their working lives at Stratford’s canning factory. The book was less of a success, but like its predecessor it was quickly turned into a play by the same team, who hadn’t taken the starlings into account.
In the 1980s it was a common RSC trick to have the actors mingle with the audience to try and get as much inter-action going as possible, with the theatre intellectuals loving it and giving clever replies, which fell dreadfully flat when the actors ignored them and moved on. I used to hide behind my seat hoping no one would see me.
Trevor Nunn resigned in1986 when Thatcher started pulling the RSC’s financial finger nails out.
George Hewins was feted for a bit before he died in 1977, having his photo taken backstage at the theatre shaking hands with the mayor.
But George too had had his theatrical day back in 1912, when he was one of Frank Benson’s ‘supers’ for a season, earning between sixpence and a shilling for each performance, which was quite a lot for a labourer who only earned two shillings for a ten hour day. Apparently Benson liked George because he thought he looked a bit like Shakespeare, and may easily have been a descendant of one of the Bard’s many bastard children.
George Hewins had a pretty rough life, including a very rough time in the trenches during World War One, and I think I know what he might have said to Benson if that theatrical legend had ever asked George for the time.