How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Riots?
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand this past week, you’ll know that Britain is in the midst of serious civil unrest – after the first clashes in Tottenham following the death of Mark Duggan, we’ve seen rioting and looting spread across the capital and now in cities across the land. Whilst judgements, accusations and recriminations fly about like a brick through a shop window, we’ve seen communities come together to take action and ‘reclaim the streets’ – from the stories of Turkish shop owners protecting their property in Dalston to the mass clean-up in Clapham, we’re seeing the kind of action which David Cameron could only dream of his Big Society replicating. So, what can the arts do to help in such situations?
Theatre and politics have historically had a strong relationship – from the writings of the likes of Aristophanes in Ancient Greece through the work of Augusto Boal, and to more contemporary examples such as the Belarus Free Theatre, theatre has often given a voice to the oppressed and has given wider access to a range of issues the public may not normally engage with. Incendiary events in society provide inspiration for a number of artists, and their development and performance help stimulate public discourse regarding what has passed and what can be done to repair the damage – and potentially to avoid problems reoccurring in the future. Although it is perhaps too ambitious to suggest that intervention through the arts will make a noticeable difference in contemporary society, they can at least be a catalyst for social change.
One of the most recent theatrical approaches to events in society that affect communities has been the use of verbatim – taking transcribed accounts of what has happened to a group of individuals, dramatising it and presenting it on stage for public consumption. The recent success of Alecky Blythe’s London Road at the National Theatre shows that theatre in this form can draw in the masses, and the excellent work by the outgoing Nicholas Kent at the Tricycle Theatre has seen a series of verbatim pieces focusing on a wide range of topics; the tribunal plays have covered areas such as the invasion of Iraq post-9/11, the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Bloody Sunday massacre; however, the form itself is a dangerous one to take on. It cannot be assumed that the material chosen for performance offers a full reflection of the events that took place and the emotions felt, and taking words out of their original context for the purpose of performance can easily change their meaning – and in the wrong hands, can be twisted to fit a particular agenda. Furthermore, is there a danger that taking such serious events and adapting them to be performed to an audience for entertainment purposes somewhat devalues and trivialises what has actually happened?
An alternative approach could be to directly engage communities and individuals affected by events to be involved in the creative process as a whole; engaging communities through a devising process may offer a more rounded and accurate picture. However, taking such an approach would surely only allow a limited perspective to be offered; through having a responsibility to those involved to feel safe within the room, it would be reckless to try and bring together protagonists and those affected. Henceforth, such work should be clearly labelled regarding the perspective it shows – to mislead an audience when presenting such sensitive material would be immoral and irresponsible. Furthermore, there is a benefit in working without an intended end product – through the use of workshop techniques such as forum theatre groups can consider action and consequence in an environment where they are safe to explore them, and with less fear of them exposing themselves to others.
The danger in the current climate of riots and looting is that those involved are demonised without any efforts made to understand why they are involved in the lawlessness we are seeing on our screens. It simply doesn’t wash that everyone who is involved is so for the same reasons; when protagonists cover such a broad spectrum in terms of ethnicity, gender, location, socio-economic background and age there is no possible way of simplifying things into a catch-all reason. Whereas the political response thus far has seemingly taken an approach of containment and politicking, the arts have the potential to take an anthropological approach through engagement with those involved – adding to the current debate and helping a clearer picture be formed. The current approach to the problems faced across the UK is focusing on addressing the problems without investigating the causes – and for those involved who feel disenfranchised with how society treats them, this can only serve to reinforce such beliefs and lead to further detachment from society.
Efforts should also be taken to make the work as accessible as possible to those affected by the issues being covered; discounted ticket schemes and partnerships with community organisations can help offset costs, which will hopefully allow companies to work free of the concerns of losing money and liberated to create work that widens access to the arts and stimulates discussion and possible further action beyond the performance. Art has the power to inspire action in others – as evidenced in the support that has built up around the work of the Belarus Free Theatre – and artists should be encouraged to embrace this where possible.
Some may accuse companies and artists of profiteering and devaluing the problems arising through these riots once work is created, but keeping the issues in the public domain and asking questions can be no bad thing; although there will always be a variation in the quality of work being presented, a wider ecology of voices can either help generate further dialogue, call into question existing accounts of what has happened or inspire action in others. In the current climate, this is something we badly need.