Tuesday, 28 October 2014

London Revolution

In my MA playwriting class at Westminster a couple of years ago, I looked at Alecky Blythe's play 'London Road'. Writing in this blog, I argued that the play was fascinating for the ways in which its troubling critique of 'community' was underpinned by specific dramaturgical choices. This week I've been reading another verbatim piece, also by Blythe, about the London riots. Again, the play demonstrates a striking interaction between form and content.

In its simplest terms, 'Little Revolution' is constructed out of the testimony of those directly affected by the events of summer, 2011. Issues of class are at the forefront, as rival support groups are set up by the more well-healed Clapton Square Users Group and the residents of the Pembury estate. What is most interesting about the play, however, is the way in which Blythe inserts herself into the action. Rather than being an invisible witness, she becomes one of the voices - a part of the story she is telling. It's a dramaturgical intervention that allows the play to be deeply insightful about the nature of the riots themselves - too often analysed for a 'meaning' independent of the commentary surrounding them.

The significance of 'bearing witness' is alluded to throughout the play. And certainly, acts of 'seeing' and 'being seen' were integral to the riots. As a local councillor notes at one point, '[...] that'll be exactly the way the riots were actually. / About twenty people actually doing it and everybody else watching'. There is also a powerful tension in the play between the performative nature of 'reclaiming' the streets, and the desire to avoid detection. Blythe herself has a hair-raising experience with one looter whom she has accidentally photographed. He demands that she delete the picture or surrender her phone. And then, of course, there's the way in which CCTV, media images, and records of mobile phone messaging helped to secure the convictions of those who were (often very minimally) involved. In other words, witnesses to, and recorders of, the riots were part of the fabric of the events themselves. The point is made explicit at another moment in the play when Blythe finds herself present at a stop and search. Another onlooker remarks '[...] if you wasn't there or we wasn't there they [the police] woulda handled him shabbier.' The act of observing things changes the nature of what is being observed.

Similarly, the act of storytelling is never neutral. There is another powerful scene in the play in which shopkeeper Siva, a victim of the looting, is asked to appear on This Morning. He expresses his anxiety as follows: 'Everybody ask the same question, "Do you think local people done it?"// I'm going to serve them again. What can I say?'. The story Siva will tell on live television will reflect complex circumstances.

Blythe's decision to include herself in the play - as a self-appointed chronicler - therefore becomes the means by which we better understand the events themselves. By drawing attention to the integral importance of acts of witnessing and being witnessed, of both being and telling the story, her play undermines any reductive attempt to analyse the riots as a discrete phenomenon. Throughout the play, many people express their opinions about what actually happened and why. It would be a mistake to think that any of these views are right or wrong - closer to, or further away from, some idea of objective truth. These conflicting voices - these conflicting stories - are part of this 'truth'. The tales told about the London riots cannot be divorced from the things they describe. That, at least, is the provocative argument Blythe's dramaturgical choices offer up.