THE SMELL OF TOXIC GAS engulfed the small interior of the Tricycle Theatre. Audience members covered their noses and shot one other alarming looks. I waited to hear an announcement to evacuate the building. Then the play began.
The Tricycle is a small but outspoken agent of change that staged The Riots as a gimmick-free yet arresting protest to the government’s refusal to start a public enquiry into the root cause of the uprising.
The production was the brainchild of artistic director Nicolas Kent, who commissioned South-African born novelist Gillian Slovo to pen the production.
The rapid thudding of a helicopter in motion accompanied a stream of tweets scrolling down a white screen. The twitter frenzy had taken off along with the August riots that spread from London to cities across England.
The tweets were lost on a few older members of the audience, as a lady sat behind me whispered to her neighbour: “What’s the difference between a blog and twitter?”
The soundtrack changed to a whirring police car siren along with blazing scenes of cars and buildings set on fire and police officers trying to extinguish the flames of fury.
In the company of friends
People from all walks of life who were directly involved in the riots – from hooded rioters to social workers, lawyers, residents, priests, police officers and MPs – were interviewed in the making of the play.
The actors playing them came on stage in small groups and faced the audience. They informally described the chronology of events, beginning with the peaceful protest that spiraled out of control. I felt I was in the company of friends who needed someone to listen.
One of the first to speak was Stafford Scott, played by Steve Toussaint, who is a consultant on racial equality and community engagement from Tottenham. His calm and collected thoughts appeared to be the resonating voice of wisdom throughout.
Scott revealed how the police inflamed the situation and were also engulfed by it. He described how youngsters threw apples at mysteriously empty police cars and then quickly swapped fruit for missiles.
Scott likened the mindset of the rioters to suicide bombers, saying that they are both demonised by the same frustration. He said: “They’ve been imploding instead of exploding and on that day, they exploded.”
He also added that good never came out of riots but from public enquiries, asserting the purpose of the play.
Martin Sylvester Brown, a Tottenham-based youth worker, spoke of how the riots strengthened the unity of Tottenham residents but widened the division between them and the authorities.
The ignorance of many politicians was spotlighted, as Education Secretary Michael Gove asked why more youngsters are not involved in social groups such as the Scouts.
The stage was scattered with boxed televisions and stereos and crates of beer. An intercepting courtroom scene with a rioter on trial featured the judge sitting on a makeshift pillar of Sony digital TVs, as though he were protecting the products of society.
Each interviewee was also asked to describe the rioters in three words. The terms ranged from “impulsive” and “reckless” from some MPs to “angry” and “lost” from members of the affected communities.
The underplayed but compelling production successfully answered the questions that were on the minds of many but also posed the questions that should be asked.
Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, quoted in the play, prophesied:
‘This is going to happen again until we deal with it”.
The Riots is showing until 10 December 2011. Book tickets here: www.tricycle.co.uk
– Monica Sarkar
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