London theatre turns England’s riots into a drama

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Tricycle Theatre

Tricycle Theatre

But that is the offer currently packing audiences into London’s Tricycle Theatre, a small venue that has built a big reputation with fact-based plays about divisive issues, from Guantanamo Bay to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Riots,” which opened this week, vividly recreates the mayhem that raged for four nights in August through the testimony of real people — residents, police, politicians, community workers and the rioters themselves.

Director Nicholas Kent said the play was intended to take the place of a public inquiry into the riots, which the government has declined to hold.

“It didn’t have to happen,” Kent said. “That’s the thing I totally took away from our work on the play.

“It seemed to us important to explore the reasons for the riots and people’s motivations and what happened and what our response was to it as Londoners — and how we could prevent something like that happening again.”

The riots were triggered by the fatal police shooting, in disputed circumstances, of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in the working-class London district of Tottenham on Aug. 4. The play shows how Duggan’s death led, partly through accidents and missteps, to Britain’s worst civil unrest in a generation. The mayhem across London and other English cities left hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of property damage, as well as pain and questions, in its wake.

Writer Gillian Slovo and her researchers taped 56 hours of interviews with everyone from police officers on duty in Tottenham that night to community leaders, young looters and a man left homeless by arson. They even heard from two people imprisoned for rioting, who wrote to the theater with their stories after the Tricycle put an ad in a prison newspaper.

The conservative Daily Mail newspaper criticized the company for giving criminals a voice, but Slovo said the rioters’ viewpoint was vital.

“I do think it’s important for us to listen and to see how they got caught up, what they think about it afterwards and what provoked them to do it,” she told BBC radio. “Because otherwise how can you make sure that this won’t happen again?”

Although a few senior politicians — including London Mayor Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May — declined to participate, many agreed to give interviews, as did top police officers. Kent said many police and politicians were as shocked by the riots as most Britons, and wanted to learn the lessons.

Kent, who has led the Tricycle since 1984, plans to step down next year. Under his leadership, the 250-seat venue in a scruffy part of north London has gained international acclaim with documentary dramas and verbatim plays which mold real people’s words into compelling theater.

In 2003, “Justifying War” recreated the legal inquiry into the death of David Kelly, a weapons expert caught up in a storm about the British government’s case for war with Iraq. The next year, “Guantanamo — Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” drew on the testimony of terrorist suspects detained at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. The play transferred to London’s West End and ran off-Broadway in New York.

Although the theater has a left-wing reputation, it has won fans in high places. Earlier this year “The Great Game,” its cycle of short plays covering 200 years of Afghan history, was summoned by The Pentagon for a command performance for senior U.S. defense officials and military brass.

London critics were enthusiastic about “The Riots.” The Independent called it a “taut, illuminating two-hour show,” while the generally conservative Daily Telegraph praised it as “thought provoking and admirably evenhanded.”

The play is a patchwork that asks more questions than it answers: Was it a race riot? Was it protest or criminality? Were street gangs or government cuts to blame? Could it happen again?

There are no comfortable or easy answers, but plenty of striking details that have the ring of truth — and often humor as well.

The play conveys how different the experience of the riots felt, depending on vantage point. It captures the distress of victims, the fear of police officers holding the line against a mob, and the excitement of participants caught up in the mayhem.

“It looked like Hollywood had come down, set up everything to look like a mad war zone,” says one anonymous rioter, wide-eyed with excitement.

Another boasts of his haul from looting: shoes, electronics and a Harry Potter DVD box set. “I don’t even like Harry Potter.”

The emotional heart of the play is provided by Tottenham resident Mohamed Hammoudan, who fled his apartment with his two young sons after rioters set the store below it ablaze. Compellingly played by Selva Rasalingham, he is reflective and wry, describing the surreal experience of standing amid rioters watching his home burn to the ground.

He also gets the last word, when he is asked for three words to sum up the rioters.

After a long pause, he replies: “Just angry people.”

“The Riots” is at London’s Tricycle Theatre until Dec. 10.


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