The Riots: duo who turned a crisis into a drama, interview
8th November 2011
Interview with writer Gillian Slovo and director Nicolas Kent about their attempt to make sense of the mayhem of late summer 2011: The Riots. First published 08 Nov 2011, Daily Telegraph.
The August riots were still in their raging infancy when Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, called up Gillian Slovo, the novelist and writer. He was in Kilburn, north-west London, at work. She was in the Scottish Highlands, taking time out, “looking at grouse through binoculars”.
Kent was roughly eight miles from Tottenham, Wood Green, Clapham – he could hear the sirens, saw the shops along Kilburn High Road shuttering down in anticipation of trouble, and was even advised by the police to take precautionary measures. Slovo followed everything, like millions of others, on television. What they both felt, though, was identical: concern, yes, alarm too, but chiefly fascination. What was going on here?
The immense task Kent presented Slovo with – and which she immediately accepted – was that she should try to make sense of the looting and mayhem by talking to as many people as possible, turning the crisis into a verbatim drama. He would clear the schedules; the whole thing had to be ready to run in just three months.
Kent has become a past-master at the theatrical mission near-impossible. In the past two decades, the Tricycle has led the way in tackling big subjects with complex political ramifications by distilling testimonies – delivered, as often as not, to public inquiries and tribunals – into acclaimed, agenda-setting evenings.
He has relied mainly on the Guardian correspondent Richard Norton-Taylor, whose journalistic and editing skills were brought to bear on The Colour of Justice – extracted from the Macpherson inquiry into the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence – Justifying War, based on the Hutton Inquiry, and Bloody Sunday, a two-hour precis of the four-year Saville Inquiry, to name their three most high-profile projects. But Slovo has come to his assistance before, too – and in a more hands-on fashion, shaping from her own interviews a lauded verbatim piece in 2004 called, and about, Guantánamo.
With Guantánamo, however, the ambit of inquiry was relatively restricted. With something as massive and inchoate as the riots – where would you start, where would you end? Having got enthused, they both grew daunted. A call to the Hackney Labour MP, Diane Abbott, swung it.
“You’ve got to do this,” Kent recalls her telling them – and then they were off, tracking down the right people to interview, or hear from.
In total, some 54 hours of material was gathered together, the judiciously compressed fruit of which will find its way on stage next week.
Who did Slovo, and her small team of researchers, speak to? Not everyone you might expect: “The immediate thought is that you should go to Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson,” Kent, sitting hunched and intense beside his quietly assured collaborator, explains. “But actually you don’t have to go to them.” Big-wig names? They’ve got enough: Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Simon Hughes and Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, are among those lending gravitas to the evening. But it was people further down the line who often came up with the most illuminating remarks – whether it be community leaders, policemen and householders directly caught up in the riots or, naturally enough, those who went on the rampage – five of whom they’ve heard from indirectly: three filmed by a TV company, and two who wrote from prison, having pleaded guilty to looting.
One of the most interesting findings of the recently published report into the motivations of youngsters caught up in that week’s orgy of destruction was the simple contributing factor of the “party atmosphere”. Did that come across, too?
“It was mentioned by many people,” Slovo reveals. “Not so much revelry but a state of high adrenalin and excitement: that sense of being part of a crowd, of doing something out of the ordinary, and illegal, without interference and of doing it with other people. It wasn’t only rioters, though. The police, too, and the firefighters, talked about this same high adrenalin, this same excitement.”
An easy conclusion to reach, sight unseen, is that the piece will display a Leftist, liberal bias: Kent, who has run the Tricycle for 28 years, recently announced his departure as a retort to arts funding cutbacks and skewed Coalition priorities (he rails, for instance, against the contrasting decision to restore weekly bin collections). Slovo is the daughter of the South African anti-apartheid campaigners and communist supporters Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who was murdered for her opposition to the regime in 1982.
And yet everything the two say about the evidence they’ve gathered suggests a determined open-mindedness, with Slovo also emphatically describing much of what went on as “mass criminal activity”.
“We’ve never been accused of bias in any of these plays by the press, Right or Left,” Kent insists. “The mere fact that we’ve chosen the subject is our political statement. Once we’ve chosen it, we need the whole spectrum of views. We’re saying that the riots are important – that’s all. We’re not saying the people burnt out of their houses aren’t as much a victim as someone who feels the need to riot because they’ve had – or they think they’ve had – a deprived upbringing or been unfairly discriminated against. We try to give everyone a voice.”
Slovo agrees: “You do have an editorial power because you decide what to include, but you want to make the audience think – not tell them what to think. What you hope is that they’ll benefit from the same privilege you’ve had, which is to start off not knowing much and end up feeling, ‘I understand something about these riots’. Kent adds: “The script we have is extraordinary – it’ll make people think about what we can do to avoid this happening again.”
In the glaring absence of any proper Government-initiated inquiry into the week England erupted, that sounds good enough to be getting on with.