Features Essays Published 29 November 2011

Riot Acts

A series of scratch responses to the London riots.

Natasha Tripney

The summer riots in the UK were shocking and unsettling for many reasons, not least the ugliness and reactionary nature that characterised much the media’s initial response. There seemed to be a pervasive failure of imagination at work, an insidious ‘them’ and ‘us’ dynamic.

Now that a little time has passed and the temperature has cooled a more considered approach can be taken. Last week the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn staged their theatrical response to the riots; the production, compiled  and composed by author Gillian Slovo from spoken evidence, it used the venue’s by now familiar verbatim approach to explore the issues. At the same time publisher and live literature producers  Penned in the Margins and Richmix staged Riot Acts their own series of responses to the events of the summer, using physical theatre, spoken word and, for want of a better expression, remote choreography to tackle the subject from a number of angles.

The project started as an open call to artists sent out in the immediate wake of the riots. Of the performers who submitted proposals, four were selected for further development and these were presented in scratch format at Richmix on the 19th November. By choosing four pieces instead of one single voice, the project reflected the difficulty of condensing such a socially complex event into one coherent narrative and the acts selected veered from the abstract to the emotive to the playful.

The first piece, Birdy, was the work of Brighton-based theatre company, The Hurly Burly, and Circus Kinetica; theirs was a reworking of the story of Icarus, merging myth with the familiar. Physical theatre techniques were used to depict the descendants of Icarus, those who failed to fly, the crashers, the divers, the wearers of wings of wood, wings of string, wings of metal.

Sophie Woolley performing Stratford City 2013. Photo: Nick Murray

This was followed by Sophie Woolley’s Stratford City 2013 which took the form of a tragicomic monologue in which Woolley played a would-be writer who, driven to the edge by debt, has a spat with her boyfriend amidst the glitter of Westfield. Fuzzy camera phone photos of shiny consumables were projected on the wall, providing a neat contrast to the ratty sofa from which Woolley told her tale of escalating violence. The piece took a while to build up and to warm to its own story, but when it did kick off, it did so quite memorably (which, I suppose, is fitting); according to director Russell Bender, Woolley eventually hopes to incorporate this piece into a larger more multi-layered piece with the Stratford mall as its setting.

The third piece, Revolt, was a collaboration between the poet Luke Wright and the filmmaker Zara Hayes. Building on the sense of experiment displayed in his Cynical Ballads, Wright’s long-form poem was double-stranded, telling twin stories of the London riots and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; the latter told in a heavily alliterative medieval poetic style. Eventually Wright hopes to interweave these two strands but at the moment they sit apart. The first section helicopters over a number of characters: a journalist, an MP, a girl living on an estate, and contains a dash of Mrs Dalloway in the way it seems to peer down at its large cast of characters from above.  At the moment this part of the poem feels better developed and more visually alive than the second historical section. Hayes’ accompanying film combined news footage of the riots with snippets of The X Factor, an exercise in juxtaposition that could well have felt forced or overly obvious but through intelligent editing managed to mostly avoid that trap. Wright’s piece was the most explicitly angry of the quartet, the one most frustrated by the labelling of the rioters as ‘other’ and the under-rug-brushing conducted by much of the mainstream media, the failure to engage.

Greg McLaren's Score for a Riot. Photo: Nick Murray

The last piece of the evening was by Greg McLaren. His Score for a Riot was pitched midway between a piece of drama student trust-play and a piece of remotely choreographed dance theatre. Structured into three movements, the piece called for audience members to follow a series of cues and instructions which were given to them in envelopes. They were invited to perform a riot, to create a scene, the shape of which was determined by the way they interpreted the instructions and the way they interacted with one another individually and en masse. There was a hesitant start but once a few people began to move and shout, more joined in, noise and energy levels rose as people fed off each other’s willingness to participate and took their cues from each other’s behaviour. The more gripped by the thing people became, the more cacophonous and chaotic the results.  Even the audience who chose not to participate, the sitter-outers, were playfully made to feel complicit in their role as observers. As an exercise in exploring mass behaviour it was incredibly elegant, and made more potent by the fact of its unpredictability, the fact that each time the piece is performed it is likely to look very different. On the night at least one participant was either over-keen to begin or misread the instructions, embodying a rogue helicopter scudding alone across the stage, but this did not undermine the piece, in fact it had the opposite effect, adding to its sense of unpredictability.

Though some were more fully formed than others, all of these very different pieces have the potential to become stand-alone productions and projects. The variety of viewpoints on the display and the ways in which the performers chose to engage with, not just the events of the summer but the underlying social issues, the under-hum of discontent and disconnect, made for a very thought-provoking evening. There was never a sense of uneasy appropriation or bandwagon-jumping; each piece, in its own way, attempted to bridge that ever-widening imaginative gap.

On the way to the venue I’d walked past the fringe city of tents that form the Occupy camp outside St. Paul’s, over all their chalked paving-slab slogans, past the middle aged woman sporting a V for Vendetta mask as if it were an Alice band and the girl caped in foil as if she’d just run a marathon; past the towering transvestite in black velvet shorts, the solitary Hari Krishna, the pair of bemused Boris-bikers, and the tourists opting to simultaneously photograph both Wren’s dome and the tents below. The experience chimed with the work I saw later in the night, the interrogation of the space between eloquence and action, the channelling of anger and frustration about the current state of things into the asking of questions coupled with the acknowledgement that, even if the answers aren’t readily available, the act of questioning is no less essential.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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