It wasn’t easy being a teenager in Thatcher’s Britain. If we weren’t worried about total nuclear conflagration, we agonised with our teachers and parents about the growing mass-unemployment and the social unrest that accompanied it. I distinctly remember my form tutor telling us fifteen year olds that we didn’t really have to take our upcoming exams all that seriously because there was so much hopelessness that even check-out girls at Tesco’s had degrees in astrophysics; if they couldn’t find work in 1982, what chance do we have? Nightly we would watch the latest riots on the telly or stare with incredulity at a little manufactured war labouring under the delusion that it was crucial to guard a tiny sheep-filled island in the Atlantic when really it was about manufacturing public support for a corrupt Tory government. It was the Falkland’s debacle that really finished it all for my father; a life-long supporter of the Conservative government, he suddenly found himself redundant and on the labour scrap heap at the age of 49. Those were tough times indeed.
Today, when I visit my homeland, I don’t recognise it. Overnight it seems to have become a modern, functioning part of Europe. Women now make up almost half of the workforce whereas when I was attempting to research numbers of women who faced unemployment in Britain in the early nineteen eighties, I found that the government did not even record such data (presumably because numbers were either so low or that a woman’s working plight did not register as a cause of undue social concern). For some of us approaching middle age, it seems that this period was some kind a nightmare- a momentary, illusionary fugue that we query as to whether we even experienced at all. It is into this bleak period that Churchill takes us with her play “Fen”.
As terrible as life was for the urban dweller of this time, it was just as lonely and bleak for the rural worker. Denied even the slim support of a working union, the women who laboured for casual piece work digging potatoes in the fields were the twentieth century equivalent of serfs. Coupled with this crippling and agonising work was also the challenge of raising children, supporting husbands, keeping a household functioning and slowly shelving dreams and self-actualisation. This is the ‘poverty of spirit’ to which Hope has introduced her actors.
When Hope and I initially met before the rehearsal project, I was curious as to why she had picked this play- what was it about “Fen” that she felt could resonate with a Winnipeg audience? We chatted of the evolution of feminism and women in the working world but I got the sense that Hope was most concerned with the poverty that surrounds us here, on the streets and farms of the city and province. How prescient that now seems in the wake of the latest recession! And while some financial pundits may smugly congratulate themselves on how well Winnipeg has weathered this latest financial storm, I know from bitter experience that there are still men, women and children who wander these streets wondering where their next meal is coming from. For them, Ikea building projects have no meaning whatsoever. This is poverty, the real and the spiritual, that I believe Hope wants us to all connect with as we watch Churchill’s play. And I, for one, am glad at the chance to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
Vicky McMahon, Dramaturg