The most groundbreaking play of 2019 is about to open in London

The logo from the Liberty play
Steve Topple

A play based on a long-forgotten civil rights hero is about to open in London. But if you’re looking for something run-of-the-mill, then this isn’t for you; which is probably a very good thing. Because the show’s use of social media and its cast are positively groundbreaking.

Scottish born, Scottish bred?

Kath Duncan was a Scottish-born political activist during the early part of the 20th century. She lived and taught in south London. But then a judge imprisoned her for six months in 1932 for being a “disturber of the Peace of our Lord, the King”. Her crime? Singing the Labour Party anthem The Red Flag and speaking at a demonstration.

Duncan’s second arrest and subsequent trial in 1936 became one of the first court cases undertaken by the human rights organisation we now know as Liberty, and it also put into motion the laws over freedom of speech that we have today.

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The world previously knew little about her life. That is until author, campaigner, and broadcaster Ray Woolford found her story. He has now turned it into a one-act play called LibertyThe Canary caught up with him to discuss long-forgotten heroes, gender fluidity and Duncan’s legacy.

Forgotten heroes

Duncan has an illustrious history. From being active in the suffragette movement to being at Cable Street, via politics within the Communist Party. She was also a key member of the selection process for people going to fight for the republic in the Spanish Civil War.

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Interestingly, in 1917 she developed a lifelong friendship with Sir Winston Churchill. It was a friendship that ensured both British and Russian secret services would seek to recruit her as a spy. She declined both offers.

A “national treasure”?

But for Woolford there wasn’t an overriding aspect of Duncan’s life which drew him to her story. Rather, as he told The Canary, he always feels “cheated” when society forgets working class heroes:

In the year we remember 100 years of women’s activism and 100 years of the vote for some women, I always feel cheated that society always forgets the stories of working-class heroes that I can relate to, people who fought and won our battles – especially women. We leave them in the shadows. How could it be that Kath Duncan, who led so many civil rights and social justice campaigns, was ignored and erased from history? Should she not be restored to national treasure status for her amazing activism that actually won change?

Why do so many on the left talk about working class, and yet stay silent about the women like Kath that without this stage play and book would still be unknown? Why do we allow this? And why do we care so little about people once they’re six feet under? People who fought our battles? This play is so important; not because of Kath alone, but because it shows the power of one woman to take on the system and win time and time again, against the odds. Should this not be what we should be using as our inspiration today?

Charting history

Liberty, brought to the stage by Red Blouse Theatre, charts a brief period of Duncan’s life in 1930s Deptford, London. Opening with Duncan “on her soap box” after going out to support striking dockworkers in Woolwich, it quickly turns dark. Police brutally break up the protest, and subsequent events lead to Duncan’s first trial and eventual imprisonment.

The structure of Liberty is unconventional. Woolford opens with a newspaper clipping of Duncan’s first trial in 1932 and then moves on to give a potted history of her life in the third person. He also gives a history of Deptford, including the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. After the potted histories, comes the actual play. It charts the dramatic events leading up to and during Duncan’s first imprisonment, including actual Hansard records of the debate in parliament about her at the time. Again, Woolford intersperses this with contemporaneous newspaper cuttings, adding to the stark reality of events.

But it’s perhaps the production and the cast which are breaking down the most barriers.

Groundbreaking theatre

Directing Liberty is Karen Douglas, founder of SpartaKi Theatre. The musical director is Rona Topaz; although Woolford is quick to point out it’s not a “musical”, but a “stunning production with songs”. He has written several himself for Liberty. Renowned fight/stunt director Ronin Traynor has staged the battle scenes.

Meanwhile, the gender fluid cast includes some well-known names.

Emily Carding takes the role of Duncan, leading a cast where women play many of the male roles. Danish-Brazilian actress Ana Luiza Ulsig features alongside Celebrity Big Brother winner and Hollyoaks actor Alex Reid and actress Amy Whitrod Brown. Meanwhile, Giorgio Borghes will bring to life his stage persona Claudia F to highlight the activism of Percy Duke in the 1930s. A judge gave Duke 12 months hard labour for wearing a dress in public.

But Woolford’s plans for audience engagement are equally interesting. One show will be live streamed to dozens of countries where being LGBTQI+ is still illegal. Also, parts of Liberty will be fed live onto social media for people to interact with. All in all, it makes for a staggeringly inventive experience.

No edge lost here

Woolford told The Canary:

There is no point writing or producing a great play if you are not willing to push boundaries. Nor if you’re unwilling to change not just the narrative but also how theatre is done for the masses. People forget that theatre used to be the way working class people heard news, shared stories and mobilised and organised against injustice.

That edge has been lost and many believe theatre is not for the masses now – it’s just for the elite. That’s why in ‘Liberty’ we are not only using social media in a way never used before in period drama, but we are also selling tickets from as little as £5. This is so people can afford to come once or twice and get inspired. We hope people leave the theatre not just singing songs from the show, but ready to reengage politically with their communities; just as Kath would have wanted them to.

Giving back

But Liberty isn’t just about Duncan, the theatre and history. It’s also about giving something back to the community of Deptford. At the same time as the play runs, Woolford’s other venture, the Deptford Heritage Festival is on.

All profits from the play and the festival will fund a school holiday project run by the local community. It keeps children fed and safe during the school holidays, and which, despite growing need, receives no government or council funding. But it’s a damning indictment of the state of the UK that theatre is funding school holiday activity. Woolford, who has been running a foodbank for many years, has seen a drop in donations of late.

“Exhausted with giving”

He told The Canary:

Sadly, ‘giving’ has exhausted people. We put on events, stage the Deptford Heritage Festival and this play ‘Liberty’. It’s all so we can have a secure income in the age of cuts and austerity. We want to plan projects and ensure every penny we raise can help and support the maximum number of people in the most cohesive way possible. Many projects struggle because they don’t have a cash flow. This play will literally change and save lives; if people come and see it. That’s what community activism is about. But we must change the way we campaign and raise funds for our causes as money gets tighter.

Challenging history while making it

Woolford has high hopes for Liberty. But they’re not just for the play.:

I hope everyone will leave ‘Liberty’ feeling empowered. This was an ordinary Scot from Kirkcaldy; admittedly who was better off than most. But as a teacher Kath saw the impact of social justice and inequality through the kids she taught. She was determined to make a stand and do her bit. The fact she fought and won almost every campaign she was involved in makes her not ordinary, but extraordinary. Yet every one of use could be Kath Duncan in the way so many identified with ‘I Daniel Blake’.

We need to challenge the history the establishment teaches us, and ensure more working-class hero’s stories are told through stage and film.

It’s taken 80-plus years to get Kath Duncan’s story told. And yet it’s our story, our LGBTQI+ and our civil rights history and successful activism. Why is it in the country that claims to be the capital and centre of civil rights is our own history never spoken of, never talked about, never remembered? This play is the story of so many that fought, marched and served jail time before us. For us, it is easier than it was for them. But the issues are not dissimilar.

Liberty looks set to be groundbreaking. But more than that, it’s a play that could literally change people’s lives, in more ways than one.

Get involved

  • Buy tickets for Liberty and the Deptford Heritage Festival.
  • Liberty is running from 14-28 February at Zion Baptist Chapel, New Cross Road, Deptford SE14 6TJ .

 

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  • Show Comments
    1. Why doesn’t the Canary , and you help to film this play to place it on line?
      Use crowdfunding.
      With this kind of film who needs permission from the State!
      Then everyone else in the world can watch for the idea of Liberty is always curious.
      Otherwise I’ll regretablely have to miss this show, and only listen to opinions whereas
      Canary’s beauty is in showing things live allowing people to think for themselves.
      All the best.

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