The riots spread silence and sirens across pockets of a burning, looted Britain just four months ago. With politicians’ reports abound, those looking for honest answers may find solace in a small London theatre.
The fear among city dwellers was tangible in the week following August 6th and most were left with an array of unanswered questions. Dubbed Britain’s leading political playhouse by the Times, The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn is now hosting a play based on word for word spoken evidence from the riots. Written by South African playwright Gillian Slovo and directed by the multi-award winning Nicholas Kent, the play immortalises accounts from tweeting taxi drivers, exhausted riot police and flustered politicians. Author of eleven books with a history of verbatim theatre, i-D online spoke to Gillian Slovo.
Why did you decide to write a play about the riots? Nicholas asked me if I wanted to write a project on it and it was just perfect for me because like most people I was fascinated by the riots. I’m very interested in writing about and thinking about the way politics impacts on every day life.
What was the most important thing you learnt about the riots from the process of gathering witness testimony? The starting point was the way the riots kicked-off. It was a result of a peaceful demonstration by the family and friends of somebody who had been killed by police hand and then not treated well. I think that sparked off a justifiable anger in a certain community about how they are treated by the police. The way it was spreading was very different, the people that were out there stealing and looting didn’t even know who Mark Duggan was. They were doing something completely different, that I fear is something about the fact that there is a significant minority of people in England who feel that they have nothing to lose. Who are so bored, whose horizons are so limited and the state of society is so tenuous that they get caught up in stealing and burning.
Were you apprehensive about analysing such a sensitive subject matter to run in a local London theatre? No not really, I think this is an exploration of what the riots were about, what happened and why and how to make it different. I think it’s quite open ended and I’m not sure we’re actually stepping on anybody’s sensitivities. I think there are a lot of different voices in the play. People may completely disagree with each other about what happened and what it means.
You spoke to thirty witnesses including lawyers, community workers and MPs. How forthcoming were the interviewees and did you witness any hostility? Not at all, very few people refused. Politicians refused but most people said “yes”. I’m amazed at how generous people are. Not just with their time but with their thoughts. When I started this I knew that the time was very short and my worry was, will I have enough interviews to make the play. Three or four interviews in, the problem that was facing me was where to cut stuff out because all of this is so interesting. It’s quite a live subject for the people we spoke to and that shows.
Do you think the play makes a political statement? No I don’t think it does, it explores an issue. We have a wide gamut of people talking in the play, from Michael Gove to John McDonald to the left of the Labour party. Community organisers, victims and rioters don’t have the same points of view. Obviously I edited all the interviews and put in what interests me and what I thought made a good story but I’m not allowed to change people views.
You have used verbatim accounts in the Tricycle’s’ Women, Power and Politics season’. Do you think theatre has the power to inform an audience in a way other mediums do not? Television has changed, it used to be documentary that was a feature of British television for which it was renowned and now reality shows have taken over. That kind of documentary has gone into theatre and also the feature film documentary – there is a thirst by people to actually get to grips with issues in a more rounded way and have a think about things collectively. I think verbatim theatre can provide that.
The Riots runs Thursday 17th November to Saturday 10th December at The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn.
Text: Jess Duncan