Gagarin Way by Gregory Burke
by Kate McCabe
Review by Kate McCabe
Traverse Theatre on Tour Production
In the Fife coalfield on Scotland’s chilly East coast, streets are named after Soviet heroes and the villages returned a Communist Party MP to Parliament right up until the 1950s. But by the 1980s, the mining industry is destroyed and the red Kingdom of Fife has become a wasteland. In the 1990s, the existential question “why are we here” has become real, not metaphorical, for the tough working class men of Gagarin Way.
Such zones of destruction exist all over the developed world, from Leipzig, East Germany to Geary, Indiana to Krakow, Poland. Not surprising then that this first play by this young Scottish writer has become a world-wide phenomenon, with performances in France, Germany, Poland, and plans for a film version.
In these destroyed zones, the real work of cutting coal or building ships has been replaced by ephemeral activities, like assembling parts made somewhere else for machines to be sold somewhere else. Workers have an almost illusory relationship to the product of their labour.
Jobs are temporarily conjured into existence by omniscient global corporations and magicked away again just as quickly. There used to be transient workers moving round in search of work; now the worker stays put and the jobs come and go in response to mysterious and apparently arbitrary forces.
In a parts assembly factory somewhere in Fife, two of these super-alienated workers decide to force a face-to-face challenge on the faceless corporation that employs them. Gary, a one-time shop steward, is now attracted to the role of the lone incendiary who by a single dramatic act will fire others to revolt. He is goaded to action by Eddie, a dangerous nihilist for whom philosophy is not so much a guide to action as a licence to kill. Tom is the bemused onlooker, who might disagree with the extremism of his colleagues but whose wet liberalism can’t challenge it.
Gary and Eddie want to give the distant Corporation a human face but it proves harder than they expect to get to grips with entities who are always somewhere else.
Gregory Burke was born and brought up in Fife and when he wrote this, his first play, he says he wanted to “write something about the Twentieth Century….about economics, the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics and the source of real power in these globalised times ….and finally about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion”.
He certainly shows the self-delusion of thinking that individual shock tactics can challenge globalisation. Anarchism in practice seems hopelessly childish and the result of nihilism is exactly nothing - a bleak and terrible nothing in this case. But in the end the ideas espoused by all four of the protagonists seem woefully inadequate for the challenges of the 21st Century.
The only thing to be said in favour of a nihilistic time is that it can’t persist – for nothing is always replaced by something. What to replace it with is the question left hanging in the air by this superb play of ideas and action. Ensemble acting of an incredibly high standard from Billy McElhaney, Michael Moreland, John Stahl and Paul Thomas Hickey - and great stage and lighting design make this a performance not to be missed. The tradition of political theatre in Scotland, championed down the years by the late John McGrath and others, is alive and well and still tackling the subjects that matter.
You still have time to catch it at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow up until 5 October.