Let’s hope the spirit of George Williams lives on. For the founder of Christian social organisation YMCA could be speaking directly into the current zeitgeist. More specifically, his concern for the welfare and rights of ordinary workers in 1844 sounds fairly familiar to some of the observations arising out of the coronavirus crisis in the UK. Originally filmed in 2018, Saltmine Theatre may not have intentionally predicted that Soul in the Machine would strike this sort of chord two years on. But it certainly has a prophetic resonance now.
Much has been made of the poor pay and often inadequate equipment and working conditions of those who have come to be defined as ‘Key Workers’ during this pandemic. These issues existed way before the current crisis brought them firmly into the light. But they were only ever marginally and infrequently talked about in relation to the gig economy and government austerity. It seems that our consumer capitalist society was still quite happy to continue trundling along the lines of economic inequality. Until the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown restrictions brought everything to a major halt. Suddenly, those in the lowest paid and least valued roles were recognised as essential in the provision of our most basic needs and necessities. Those who were looking after our most vulnerable and at risk became our most important assets. They had been overlooked for so long. Now, they are uppermost in our thoughts. George Williams recognised this in his own context. Contending with the gruelling demands brought on by industrialisation, he sought to argue against the stresses and strains felt by his fellow workers in the name of productivity and profit. His determination to not only make life better for young working men but to provide them with an education and spiritual nourishment led to an organisation being formed that, still today, seeks to inspire, speak up for, and transform communities.
Such a huge feat, spawning from a humble vision, is perhaps what inspired Ben Kessell to play the main man with such animation and decency. He takes on the dual role of protagonist and narrator, ever active on stage as the show takes us through the story of George Williams’ life. He is joined by a fine cast of supporting characters on a fairly plain set that reminds me of the National Theatre’s 2015 production Jane Eyre. As a result, the actors have a degree of flexibility and physical improvisation as they travel across the wooden platforms, injecting liveliness into a narrative that moves swiftly along until the final fifteen minutes. Then, a defining dialogue between Williams and journalist Julia Davies (Alys Williams) exposes brilliantly the motivations, values, and beliefs that the former holds so dear. It is a well-constructed, excellently-argued, inspired piece of theatre that is worth listening to on repeat. Not least because it speaks into our situation today.
We can learn a lot from George Williams. His vision brought lasting change and provoked positive action, first among the workers of Georgian London, and then beyond. Soul in the Machine can be a stimulus for us to reach for the same. A proper debate needs to be had about the longer term policies that continually undervalue the very people who at this moment are working on the frontline. Platitudes such as applauding the NHS, now a Thursday night ritual, are all well and good. But, like the hymn and few words that mark the passing of Morse, a character whose illness stems from his poor working conditions, it does nothing to challenge the systemic inequalities that led to his death in the first place. The institutional structures that contributed to the problem remain in place.
It feels like we are at a moment when real change could be possible. We may be hankering after some kind of ‘normal’. But it would be a mistake to return to the same. George Williams wanted to build something better. Soul in the Machine can make us believe that we can too.
Featured Image (C) Saltmine Theatre