London was still burning when Nicolas Kent proposed writer Gillian Slovo assemble a verbatim piece on the subject. Only three months later, it’s onstage at the Tricycle, charting then dissecting the four days of civil unrest that sprung up this summer. The distillation of 55 hours of recorded interviews, The Riots is everything you expect it to be. Nothing more, nothing less.
It pulls off the extraordinary paradox of being absolutely necessary and almost completely unnecessary at the same time.
On the one hand, you have a consistently fascinating account covering a diverse range of witness statements and diagnoses of an event that demands attention. At the same time, however, The Riots offers very little that hasn’t already found its way into the media and the public consciousness – certainly not when one looks to its broader arguments: cuts to youth services, excessive consumerism, the excessive powers and negative perceptions of the police and extreme societal imbalance.
Its advantage over other media presentations on the subject, however, is that The Riots happens outside of everyday, real time. In other media, an issue intrudes into life momentarily, whereas theatre puts life on hold for the sake of that issue. The Riots open up a space in time, a window of two hours, in which we might properly and purely consider its subject, then sends you back out into the real world with a headful of opposing arguments that need – no, demand – further thought and a sense of social responsibility.
This, Slovo does well. Both narrative and argument are treated judiciously, with opposing testimonials and opinions fitted together to appear as direct debate. Nevertheless, the inherent problems of verbatim theatre as a form are such that The Riots can’t entirely stand up to deeper scrutiny. Its foundations are rather insecure. For starters, the familiarity of the opinions is hardly surprising given that the interviewees are largely the sort of people that the media has also turned to. Indeed, The Riots is theatre at its most journalistic. To a certain extent, it has sacrificed depth for breadth and speed. It’s also open to accusations of being over-reliant on and over-eager to secure false dichotomies.
There is also – understandably, perhaps – an imbalance in the interviewees. The rioters presented by name are remorseful and relatively sympathetic. Those that are not – at least two, though they could just be symbolic figures – remain anonymous. That’s understandable, given that Slovo’s material is constrained by their willingness to come forward and it is better to have those voices than not.
More questionable is Kent’s decision to use them comically, with older (and rounder) actors in hoodies relishing the street slang. That’s arguably countered out by comic representation of Michael Gove – who comes across as a relic of Edwardian values. He’s played stiff as a marionette by Rupert Holliday Evans, also ten years too old.
What we do learn, however, are the sorts of curious details that only first-hand witnesses can provide: the police drafted in from outside London who had only A to Zs to find their way around, the rioters who hopped over the McDonalds counter to fire up the grills, the Met Chief Inspector trimming his hedge while trouble brews, the call to leave the Hackney Empire untouched, the woman trying shoes on her infant to ensure the right fit. Combined with the productions grasp of feelings, both what it feels like to wear the uniform in a situation born out of hatred for it and the exuberance of a temporarily lawless High Street, Slovo has sculpted a strong sense of events, mining some knockout soundbites to boot. Told in the past tense, Kent directs with the flickering excitement and danger of the present. At one point – rather distractingly – flames lick the set.
Most interesting is the question of who has the authority to intellectualise and reflect on those four heated days. Not the politicians, certainly, who turn up after the explosion. Rather those that have watched it brew and build in pressure, those within the affected communities, such as Stafford Scott (a charismatic Steve Toussaint), who gets the first word. There are those that also have the right, such as Mohamed Hammoudan, who lost his flat in the fire at Tottenham. He is a dignified present, well played by Selva Raslingam, able to chuckle at the absurdities through forceful grievances.
All in all, The Riots is a success, but that success is as surefire as it gets. If handled with a modicum of care, the subject matter, style and initial concept will do the work on their own. It is a raw riddle that needs dissecting and The Riots adds to the overall conversation, albeit without adding anything to change one’s view of it. As Gove suggests, people have hooked their own agendas to the rioting and Slovo’s multi-sided and all-inclusive collage hasn’t the revelations to shatter that.