In its first fully professional production, Clyde Unity Theatre is reviving a little-known radical Scottish play of the 505. Colin Chambers of the RSC assesses the impact ofthe original Unity Theatre organisation and welcomes the re-emergence ofa pioneering tradition.
The Lambs ofGod by Benedict Scott is an extraordinary play. Written over 40 years ago, it presents an unsentimental, but often poetic picture of life in a poor, tough, close-knit neighbourhood outside Glasgow with a central character who is both working class and gay. ‘It is one of the best Scottish plays ever.‘ enthuses director John Binnie, a founder-member of Clyde Unity and a champion ofgay theatre. ‘It is way ahead of its time. There is nothing like it in gay drama. And it is still relevant because it talks about sexual persecution and how unemployment destroys the soul."
The revival also celebrates the 50th anniversary ofthe founding of Glasgow Unity. the pioneering left-wing company that first produced the play and from which Clyde Unity took its name. Though courageous. the original production was something of an embarrassment and Scott. who was both penniless and ill. broke his links with Unity — a victim ofhis own honesty. Nevertheless. coming on the heels of recent successful re-appraisals of other plays from the same group. such as Robert McLeish‘s The Gorbals Story and Ena Lamont Stewart‘s Men Should Weep. this new interest in Scott is a reminder of the debt that is owed to Glasgow Unity and to the wider Unity movement ofwhich Glasgow was such a prominent member.
Political theatre had been particularly strong in the 1930s within the radical opposition to the rise of Fascism and the blight of poverty and unemployment. Left-wing theatre groups were active all over Britain, from Aberdeen to Plymouth. from Edinburgh to Brighton. Many took the title of Unity from the London theatre of
Men Should Weep. as perfo‘rtnad‘by Glasgow Unity Theatre In 1948.
that name, which was founded in 1936 as a non-professional Popular Front cultural centre, the majority of whose members were in the Communist Party.
Each group had its own distinctive cultural and political character and was fiercely independent even when coming together in a loose national organisation. The repertoire tended to involve a mix of forms — agitprop, cabaret, documentary, social realist. often owing their introduction into Britain to the Unity movement — and it comprised locally-written work together with a core of plays that had been presented by London Unity. like Clifford Odets‘ Waitingfor Lefty or Jack Lindsay‘s 0n Gaardfor Spain.
London‘s Unity was the largest of the groups and soon won national and international prestige. most notably when Paul Robeson turned down a major West End role to play at Unity. like everyone else anonymously and for nothing. and when Babes in the Wood. an anti-appeasement satirical pantomime. broke box office records in a six-month run. Prime Minister Chamberlain. maliciously lampooned in the show. tried privately to get the theatre closed down. but he — and Hitler later during the war — failed to keep Unity quiet.
In fact the war saw a resurgence of the Unity movement. despite difficulties at the start. A new network arose. which could boast an influential magazine called New Theatre (circulation 1500) and two professional companies — London and Glasgow — alongside its 10.000 individual and three million affiliated members.
Glasgow Unity. an amalgamation offive theatre groups, became the
pride of the movement. bringing its consciously contemporary Scottish work. both amateur and professional. to London to great acclaim, and playing The Gorbals Story in the West End. In spite of opposition from the theatre establishment. Glasgow Unity initiated the ‘fringe‘ at the Edinburgh Festival and stimulated the emergence of a vital new Scottish drama. It enjoyed a huge popular following and was genuinely a voice ofthe people.
The movement splintered during the cold war and yet those Unity theatres that survived remained valuable ‘open universities‘ still capable of the occasional dazzling production. but little was left of the old energy by the time groups such as 7:84 were launched. London‘s Unity Theatre was burnt out in 1975 and Merseyside finally folded up on its 50th anniversary in 1987. A new Unity society in London has just re-emerged and is organising a series ofworkshops prior to a first production.
Unity theatres became a way of life for most of their members who were driven by passion and commitment and who frequently saw the collective activity as a microcosm of socialism itself. Stage and TV star Alfie Bass, a Unity veteran from the 19305, once recalled: ‘My pride was to be appearing for the cause. I can’t think of anything more inspiring than creating a play or revue with a real purpose.‘
These left-wing theatres gave a voice to thousands ofpeople and changed the character and content of the British theatre as well, for both of which the Unity movement won the support of leading artists— HG. Wells, Tyrone Guthrie, Sean O’Casey. Hugh MacDiarmid. Michel Saint-Denis, Sybil Thorndike, Michael Redgrave. Unity gave many from its own ranks into the profession; the well-known — Maxine Audley. Lionel Bart. Stanley Baxter. Michael Gambon. Eveline Garratt. Bob Hoskins. Russell Hunter. Roddy McMillan, Warren Mitchell. Bill Owen. Ida Schuster. Ted Willis — are the tip ofa sizeable iceberg.
As Clyde Unity continues and honours this vigorous tradition. it opens appropriately enough at the Old Athenaeum. which was the first permanent base for Glasgow Unity before the theatre's governors forced the company out. The production then tours. as did Glasgow Unity. to non-traditional venues. ‘The Glasgow Unity years were a tremendous experience for all of us who were there.‘ says Alrae Edwards. a member ofboth the current and the original cast of Lambs ofGod. ‘I know this production will be different. but I‘ve no doubt the spirit will be the same.’
Colin Chambers is literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company and author of The Story of Unity Theatre (Lawrence and Wishart
£9. 95). Lambs ofGod opens on Sat 19 May at the Old Athenaeam and tours until the end ofJane.
ifTThe List 18— 31 May 1990