It is a sad indictment of our media that if you want an unbiased account of what happened in the Summer riots you need to buy a ticket to the Tricycle’s latest production.
Nicolas Kent commissioned the play while the riots were still going on. Gillian Slovo has used facts, observations and assessments from a wide range of voices which are not normally given prominence: the ordinary riot police, community and spiritual leaders, youth workers, solicitors, politicians, victims, witnesses, and the rioters themselves, some of them communicating from their prison cells much to the chagrin of the Daily Mail.
Put together, it becomes clear that there is no demographic group, whether by age, ethnicity, class or gender, that is excluded from the riots, unless you count the human race as a group.
Slovo’s task is to make us look at the images and soundbites arising from the riots in a new way, and to give us some insights, but there are no easy answers. We are challenged to see the events from all sides, whether listening to a community leader who has protested outside Tottenham police station so many times that he can tell us exactly what he thinks the police did wrong this time, or riot police thinking about what happened to PC Keith Blakelock every time they face an overwhelming crowd, or the man whose flat was burnt down in the Carpetright fire in Tottenham. The great strength of this play is that it does not try to ‘dramatise’ events. All the speech is taken verbatim and spoken by actors, and although they sometimes appear to acknowledge each other’s presence, they are all in their own world. It is the skilful interweaving and juxtaposition of these views that gives us the drama, with conflict and opposition coming into focus as well as common themes.
The set is also very simple, using the everyday objects associated with the riots to great effect. Debris surrounds the edges of the stage, with a multipack of bottled water, and crushed traffic cones. Amidst the office furniture which is ritually carried off each time one of the rioters exits, boxes of flatscreen TVs (an enduring symbol of the looting) and other consumer desirables are stacked up, at one stage serving as the Judge’s ‘bench’. The centre of the stage serves as an oasis, with each speech coming into the spotlight to give us pause and a chance to apply reason. Jasmine Robinson’s visuals, too, are used sparingly, beginning with a simple roll-call of riot-related tweets scrolling up the screens as we enter the theatre, showing how quickly events escalated. It is the spoken evidence which provides most of the impact and when we are shown images of the devastation we see them afresh.
The play has a strong ensemble cast, many of whom double-up to play more than one character, from hooded rioters, to judges, to politicians from all parties. Slovo uses a range of quotes in such a way that it is clear that no one party has the answers. The highlight of this section was Michael Gove’s contribution which provoked spontaneous laughter by reaching new heights of right-wing insensitivity. Perhaps the most disturbing information about the politicians is the comparison between the draconian sentencing of the rioters (18 months for stealing moisturiser) and the liberal sentences meted out to MPs involved in the expenses scandal.
Riots are nothing new in London, but they are always an occasion for moral panic and a magnet for extremist views. In the absence of an official public enquiry, Nicolas Kent and Gillian Slovo have given us the next best thing: a play which moves and provokes without resorting to cheap sensationalism.