It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 45: Gillian Slovo’s The Riots (2011)
Following the lack of public inquiry into the riots that spread from London throughout the rest of England in the summer of 2011, the Tricycle theatre commissioned its own examination of events. Gillian Slovo’s verbatim piece compiles talking heads from various walks of life; from politicians, policemen and lawyers, to the rioters themselves and the innocent victims of the violent eruption. What was to blame? Race relations? Social divides? A culture of greed and opportunism? Slovo doesn’t come to any definitive conclusion, but to do so would simplify many of the complex and interconnected issues at play in our society.
What does result is an in-depth and wide ranging kaleidoscope of experiences and opinions, beginning with a blow-by-blow account of the riots themselves. Amidst an atmosphere of unrest, the killing of Mark Duggan by the police inspires protests from the black community in Tottenham. Yet, this is merely the breaking point, the spark which fires the ‘powder-keg’ of ongoing ill-relations and mistrust between the community and the police force. We hear accounts of the lack of police action, from both sides – seemingly the force’s hands were tied by low numbers of officers on duty and a fear of violent retaliation from the rioters (many of the policemen interviewed refer to the Broadwater Farm riots where PC Keith Blakelock was killed). For the rioters, this inaction acts more as an insult, and the vandalism and anarchy seems as much a reaction to this as the looting of chain stores was a material repercussion of the capitalist deprivation of the working classes.
From the chaotic memories of the riots, Slovo moves onto a sort of post-mortem interrogation, relaying the hypotheses of numerous authoritarians and supposed voices of reason including Diane Abbott, Iain Duncan Smith and various high court judges. One comment that stood out was Michael Gove’s likening of the situation to a Rorschach blot test, in that people will see what they want to see and thus their existing perceptions will only be further confirmed. Incidentally, Gove then goes on to spout the usual Tory guff about people wanting the reinstating of caning at schools, his example of choice solidifying his status as an out-of-touch, rambling toff. However, his initial point is an interesting one; there is a sense that Slovo is preaching to the converted. While the focus on benefit cuts and the lack of social platforms for poorer communities is an important factor to consider, as this (in the play) is predominantly voiced by the socially mobile, vastly more privileged interviewees, there is an air of left-wing, middle-class soap-boxing. More telling is the view of Sadie King, resident of the Pembury estate, who recalls an environment of white, middle-class moralising when do-gooders arrived to clean up the (already clean) estate; ‘It felt like an invasion, like people not from our community have to come into our community to clean up. It was patronising’.
Slovo hones in on the injustice of scapegoating individuals within the judiciary system. Some people received much harsher sentences than their individual crimes warranted (David Swarbrick received a 2 year sentence for stealing some moisturizer), as a means of setting an example, which is all rather draconian and seems desperately counterproductive. But the resounding voice is that of Mohamed Hammoudan, whose home was torched during the riots. As an innocent victim it is fitting that he gets the final word; he is despondent as he recalls that the emergency services ‘had no plan’ and contemplates having ‘to start a new chapter without having the seeds there from the past’.
Slovo’s play presents an intelligent perspective on the state of Britain, yet doesn’t quite manage to capture the cacophony of anger and disparity felt by the Tottenham community at the centre of the disruption – perhaps due to too much pontificating on the part of the big wigs and MPs. There is an essence of ‘what if…?’ in The Riots, it seemingly unpicks the seams of society to diagnose its problems, yet the truths that hindsight unveils (somewhat paradoxically considering the verbatim genre) don’t seem to have any practical function or resolution in the real world. Five years later not a lot seems to have changed, in fact race and class relations/divisions seem more fractured than ever - just consider the ‘war on immigration’ and instances of overt racism following the Brexit vote. So while it seems Slovo and many of her contributors would like us to take heed of what happened in August 2011 and its repercussions, whether politicians, the police force, and society as a whole will take that on board is another matter…