Many things drew me to directing The Last Ship for Pioneer Theatre Company. On top of being a story of the working man, it’s a story of reconciliation between Gideon and his father, his son, his girlfriend, his town, and himself. That theme alone could keep a director—and an audience—engaged, but what makes this play so relevant, and affecting, is how this theme spreads over the people of Wallsend, over generations of shipbuilders whose very identity is in the work they do. These men and women have uncommon pride in their work, and want to pass down that pride and skill not only to their children, but to all new shipbuilders.
The loss felt by Wallsend is excruciating— and is not fiction: The Last Ship was inspired by the real-life closure of Swan Hunter shipyard and what was happening throughout Northern England in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s when the shipbuilding industry collapsed.
Jimmy Reid rose to prominence in the early ’70s when he led the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in a protest against the British Conservatives’ bid to close the shipyards on the River Clyde. The government had concluded that the shipyards should operate without state subsidy. An engineer by trade, and shop steward of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, Reid—along with colleagues and friends—fought to keep the yards open by staging a “work-in.” This meant Reid and the workers, instead of striking, would complete whatever orders the shipyard had gotten. As Reid said, in 1971:
I want to make this point. Everybody talks about rights. There is a basic elementary right involved here. That is our right to work. We are not strikers. We are respected people and we will conduct ourselves with the dignity and discipline that we have all the time expressed over the last few weeks…. And there will be no hooliganism… There will be no vandalism… There will be no bevvying… Because the world is watching us and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves responsibly and with dignity and maturity.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a job that is part of who they are, part of their soul. But for those of us who do (and I count myself among them), The Last Ship reminds us how lucky we are.
Karen Azenberg, Director/Choreographer
This production is sponsored by:
Wanda and Carvel Mattsson Memorial Fund