revew: Maxine Peake – Queens of the Coal Age
Queens of the Coal Age/
by Maxine Peake/
dir Bryony Shanahan/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
Coal’s a ghost. You walk down the street and terraced houses have those holes in the ground in front of them, with like a grate over and sometimes you can see into them. Or sometimes they’re concreted over and you get that little arch still peeking from the underground of the house. Those are for coal, aren’t they? Were for coal. Even though, even before it’s out of the ground and in the air and our hands coal’s a ghost because it’s actually made of dead things. Made of dead sea creatures and wood and made of dead aeons of time compressed in the dark. And then we burn it (used to burn it) and then it’s gone but a turbine spins and you can have electricity or cook a roast or film a documentary or watch a Mike Leigh film.
And so I don’t know how I feel about coal and I don’t know how I feel about ‘the coal age’ because it’s a big specter hanging over my head and even people like fifteen years older than me have a far deeper more embedded grasp of what the whole thing meant for this country and the lives inside it, the miners’ strike. And all I know about it is these ghosts that actually still have bits of flesh clinging to them because they are living memory even if they’re not mine.
Queens of the Coal Age is a warm show in the face of a sheer cold. The mines closed, that’s a known. The whole exercise of the show is a negotiation with failure. From the start, the women trade uncertainty and confidence, buoying each other up when they doubt themselves, each other, the movement, the men whose jobs they are fighting for. Failure looms over their effort to occupy a pit and it looms over the concept of the show when the audience already know the outcome. But a lot of the work of the show is to recontextualise the work of these women as a victory for not rolling over and giving up. Because implicit in that is solidarity. Which might not achieve the goal this time, but it will survive, and it can spread, and it will outlive coal and pits and generations and it will win other victories.
The work of Queens of the Coal Age is to remind whatever generation is about of power.
Apparently, Manchester before the Clean Air Act 1956, the buildings were all dark with soot stains from burning coal. You’d burn coal everywhere. That’s how the world worked, that’s how stuff gets built isn’t it? You burn coal, you hire some hands, boil pitch and put it on the roof to keep the rain off. Idunno. The past is full of strange dark things which had a casual purpose to them. Manchester is obsessed with building. It can’t stop getting more. And if you want progress you’ve got to make some debris. You’ve got to leave some shades behind. Coal’s a ghost.
I walk, write in a world made by these huge traumas of the past. And of ongoing deep traumas that boil beneath the surface. And they crystallise on top and beneath each other like skin on lava. My relationship to the past is so estranged. I can’t connect properly with it if I’m not there to have my own emotional response, if my only options are recollections and re-enactments. But then maybe that’s the only honest relationship possible with the past. Hold it at arms length because it’s retreating rapidly anyway.
I don’t know if failure is even a relevant concept to my understanding of the strikes and protests surrounding the pit closures of the 80s and 90s. I’m too far removed from it – the whole movement is already a theme to me. It’s something that films and plays are about, it’s not a memory of mine. The defiance and the reclassification of failure that Maxine Peake’s play is isn’t a leap to me, I think because the strikes and the grass roots movements around the closures are already so deeply marbled with triumph. What working class people have is pride and dignity. That’s what we treasure above anything else, precisely because they can’t be physically torn from us. The message of so many working class resistance films is that family and community hold us when we need them to. The things we can rely on are immaterial, common, and far outstrip the physical things that the government are able to take.
I think that worldview is already ingrained enough in me. In a way, I’m a symptom of the kind of perspective on ‘victory’ that Peake’s play is trying to encourage. Maybe I’m the trophy – some bloke in his twenties who feels naturally that community and a slowly growing struggle is still a virtue and not a shame. That defeat is temporary and that me and my peers are a growing crushing force that have the power to erupt one day. Something buried and fostered, slowly becoming useful.
Either way with coal, haul it out the ground, turn it into air. It’ll warm you.