revew: Sarah Weston – The Salford Docker
The Salford Docker/
by Sarah Weston/
dir Steph Green & Sarah Weston/
prod Isaac Rose/
Salford Community Theatre/
The Lighthouse Venue/
I believe theatre is a social form. It finds power from gathering a group of people into the same place. That gesture isn’t uncomplicated – there are people involved. The ‘same place’ may be a physical place, I suppose it usually is – but yknow it’s not always gonna be the same place in time. And people carry place with them – an angry person is an angry place wherever they are, whoever they’re stood next to – a distant person is a far away place no matter if you’re pressed up against them. A dead or absent person can easily be incredibly present.
And once time runs and the show is over, hopefully something has been handed to the audience. Hopefully they leave with an impulse, a question, a new relationship with their self in the world and among others.
The place The Salford Docker brings its audience to is a big hall, with the set in the centre, which the audience and cast both move around together. Audience are encouraged to sit on chairs and parts of the set which are not in use, and asked to move out of the way by the characters if need be. The boundary between audience and cast in The Salford Docker is troubled. In literal and metaphorical senses we are in the same place. We are in Salford, in proximity to the history and communities the play is summoning. We are also together in willingness, at the end of different journeys which have brought us to the same place.
The Salford Docker is a play set in history, but it lives in a familiar social place. The families whose histories are traced by the play through the 1950s, and 1960s through to the 80s, they live like we all do – arguing with our parents, posturing and propping each other up, getting drunk and getting tired. In the meta-narrative, the writer of the play, Anna, must negotiate the historical material, her familial connection to the stories, and her relationship with her producer, whose curatorial/dramaturgical interjections are often clinical, aggressive, practical and hard.
Like the boundary between historical and personal storytelling, the show exists in places hard and soft. Outside of comfortable pubs and living rooms, political mechanisms change the context of the community. A community built on the industry of the docks is at the mercy of the market and a government which resents and places limits on unionisation. When the nature of the work changes, demands fewer workers, increases scarcity of employment, the premise of the places people live changes. People have to change, people have to leave. Though above this, The Salford Docker is a celebration of the power of the union. The world we have, the few rights and legal protections we have as citizens and workers, have been won through strikes, through resistance: the actions of those with a stake.
When I think of industrial/postindustrial landscapes I think easily of the physical markers of central Manchester, or of Derby where I grew up. I see viaducts and trainlines and empty warehouses and factory buildings with flats inside em. But of course the trainlines ended and began somewhere, the goods for the warehouses came from somewhere. Salford is another link on the chain and the landscape around The Lighthouse Venue is a strange barren. It takes me fifteen minutes to walk from the tram and the environment feels made for cars, not feet or cycles. There are large shells of buildings whose purpose I do not know, do not even know if they’re in use or abandoned. The ghosts of Salford’s industry are not ones I am at home with.
Cos post-industry isn’t something that happened overnight – communities were disempowered, tricked, pushed aside and gaslit. This work continues today as behind closed doors towns and cities are planned. People are pushed about like they ever have – Ancoats, Hulme, for example, in Manchester; if you were to travel back in time in fifty year intervals the places would be unrecognisable. The Moloch of Media City looms over The Salford Docker, an unexpected place at the end of the timeline we are on. It is large and glass and filled with budgets, doesn’t hold affinity with brick terraces and neighbours.
Cities and markets change shape and change people. The people push back, the current might move around them but it moves on somehow. The landscape here, near to Media City, feels blank and concrete but the landscape still is a place to be populated.
The characters of The Salford Docker are ghosts. They have been summoned from records; they are created from recent interviews and from older materials. And they are summoned out of our collective knowledge of the past. As we live inside a thing called ‘today’ we do so on top of the day before, the years and decades n that too. Our lives are spectral palimpsests; our lives are layers and layers just like concrete lain over old foundations. Our language is an old aged and twisted thing. Whenever we act or speak or listen we do so in negotiation with a record, become a new part of it.
Theatre sets up rules, tricks us into getting to a place together, then manipulates the circumstances of us bearing witness to it, hopefully to have us learn things about the places we are in the world. The Salford Docker manipulates presence. When it places us as an audience inside the action of the space, we are part of the history it is trying to trouble and unearth. We carry it with us, out of the space. We bear knowledge of layers of resistance, union power and deep communal kinship.
The places we occupy are the result of series of erasure. Everything we do is a rewriting. A show like The Salford Docker shows us the importance we have to history, and the importance history has to us. There are others writing the rules of our existence, but there are many more of us; our small power becomes great in union. We write history too.