In this highly anticipated play at the Tricycle, writer Gillian Slovo and director Nicholas Kent complement the Guardian and LSE’s project Reading the Riots in a reaction against the government’s refusal to lead an official inquiry into the civil unrest of this summer. Throughout September and October, Slovo interviewed victims, looters, journalists, police officers, politicians – and has transcribed their testimonies to the stage.
The Riots is political theatre that Brecht would have been proud of. Kent’s technique is entirely anti-naturalistic: there is no method acting, no emotion memory; rather, projection screens display images and videos of burning cars, statistics and maps of targeted areas, and the actors use multi-role, even changing costume onstage to “become” the next character, and addressing the audience directly.
The interaction is almost all channelled one way, from characters to the audience; although this reflects the nature of Slovo’s research – and the fact that each character has a different perspective – it does make the style rather monotonous. But lack of onstage communication bears a deeper significance: the notion, so widely discussed in the riots’ aftermath, that community no longer exists.
Mohamed Hammoudan, whose Tottenham home was burned down, says, “I think this is a product of what happened back in the eighties where the communities, you know, have been broken up yeah? I mean, to tell the truth, even I’m guilty of that, ‘cos when the fire happened in our block I couldn’t remember my neighbour’s name.”
The staging also provides symbolism. Throughout the first and second half, the stage is empty but for a few tables and chairs – which the characters, asserting their control, take on and off stage at regular intervals – and consumer goods exactly like those stolen from shops during the looting: TVs, sports clothes, crates of beer. Whilst characters come and go, this stuff remains constantly for the audience to see, echoing the pull of materialism that caused so many to put merchandise before people.
The most striking accounts in the play are by Steve Toussaint as community leader Stafford Scott and Selva Rasalingam’s interpretation of Mohamed Hammoudan. Whilst these experiences – and most of the others – are dealt with stoically, there are a few moments where this isn’t consistent. The interpretation of public figures such as Michael Gove and Camilla Batmanghelidjh are humorous in their mimicry, but how appropriate is this?
Likewise, former Olymic ambassador Chelsea Ives is presented as a parody of a “chav”, which many will feel is insulting, intensifying the stereotypical troublemaker and simplifying the events – effectively undoing all the good work of the rest of the play.
As David Lammy said, the riots were about more than criminality, and as we can see from most of their production, Slovo and Kent clearly know that. But perhaps they should take more care not to confuse their message.