Gillian Slovo: The Riots Act

Matt Trueman
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As London and other English cities writhed in the throes of anarchy this August, Gillian Slovo was commissioned to create a verbatim piece on the events and their possible causes. She talks to Matt Trueman about her thought-provoking ‘tribunal’ play, The Riots, which ends its run this week

Before the last shop window had been smashed, the Tricycle Theatre had lined up a verbatim ‘tribunal’ play on this summer’s riots. London’s streets were still lined with 16,000 police officers and incidents were ongoing in Manchester and Birmingham when Nick Kent called writer Gillian Slovo to propose the idea. In the Scottish Highlands, Slovo was watching live television coverage in “absolute astonishment” and, despite having another project on the go, she agreed almost at once.

“He said, ‘Wait until you hear what it is,’ and he was absolutely right,” Slovo explains on the phone from her North London home. “Nick knows me too well. It was the one thing that I would drop everything else for.”

Such a quick turnover, which means the show will precede the findings of the independent ‘communities and victims’ panel, has provoked inevitable cries of ‘too soon’. But not only is Slovo absolutely unrepentant – “There’s no rule about when a play should or shouldn’t come out” – she believes that immediacy is one of the chief virtues of The Riots.

“We talked to someone who was burnt out of his flat and we’re not talking to him in five years’ time, when he knows where he’s living and has managed to cope with what happened. We’re talking to him in the midst of it and that gives it real power.”

Slovo is beautifully eloquent and speaks with a natural authority. It could just be the subject matter’s tendency to provoke strong opinions, but something about her voice – her clipped South African accent, perhaps, or her ability to build towards passionate soundbites – makes her come across as emphatic, even when she’s expressing uncertainty. “My understanding doesn’t boil down to a one-line thing: ‘This is why it happened. This is what you’ve got to do to stop it happening’.”

Indeed, her initial “lack of comprehension” was a major draw to the project. However, the subject also chimes strongly with her wider interest about “how politics impacts on individual lives”, which she attributes to her childhood in South Africa, before she moved to London aged 14. Her father Joe Slovo led the South African Communist Party. Both he and her mother, a journalist who lost her life to a letter bomb, were heavily involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

In the past three months, Slovo has conducted 55 hours of interviews with police officers, politicians, community activists, victims and rioters themselves – an experience she describes as a “privilege”. She then whittled down that material, all of which was transcribed down to the last ‘um’ and ‘er’, into two hours of stage time that unfolds a timeline of sorts and presents a range of reactions. “We worked really hard to get all political points of view represented in this play,” she says.

Like many commentators, Slovo talks of two distinct phases to the riots. The first, in Tottenham, sparked by the death of Mark Duggan, “was a race riot, a riot against the police and a protest about a black man being killed by police hands”.

She feels its subsequent spread, however – first to other London boroughs, then across the country – was markedly different: neither politically organised nor politically motivated, at least directly so. “Political organisation involves asking or demanding something of a society, and they weren’t. They were just getting stuff for themselves.”

But that’s not to say she feels the rioting was apolitical: “What was political about it is the very fact that it wasn’t political. The very fact that it becomes about consumer goods shows a paucity of aspiration and that does seem like a warning bell for all of us.” She speaks of the riots as a product of both “the tremendous rise of consumerism” since the 1980s and “the hopelessness of a generation”, rejecting the government’s label of ‘pure criminality’ as an attempt to dismiss the riots’ significance.

“It was like an incoherent and destructive cry, an anti-political cry of rage,” she says.

That very incoherence lies at the heart of The Riots’ importance, as much as its interest, and Slovo is adamant that theatre is the right place to explore such events. In an age of ever-quickening news turnover, theatre allows for deeper, more considered reflection without becoming bogged down and unwatchable.

For that reason, Slovo maintains that verbatim theatre remains a potent form, in spite of the inherent flaws, such as editorial selectivity and invisible questions, repeatedly pointed out over the last decade. All her theatre work has been verbatim, after she was headhunted by Kent to work with Victoria Brittain on Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, which transferred to the West End after its Tricycle run in 2004. Last year, she contributed verbatim monologues from female politicians including Jacqui Smith and Clare Short to Women, Power and Politics.

It is a form that she commits to rigorously. “The rule is,” she says, “you cant mess with what people say. If I add more than two words, I have to seek permission. The idea is to be as faithful as possible to what people said.”

Unexpectedly, she cites her background in detective fiction as the key to such work: “You’ve got to understand the tick of a narrative. Verbatim needs that because otherwise it just becomes a dull documentary,” she asserts.

* The Riots is on at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until December 10

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