Alecky Blythe’s play Little Revolution about the Hackney Riots ends its run at the Almeida early this month, though we might not have seen the last of it. It’s been suggested that the play should come to Hackney, a move that would at least mean more of the people the play is about will get to see it.
And the play is certainly worth seeing, both for what it says and how it says it. Much has been made of Blythe’s verbatim method; the playwright ventured out during the riots three years ago, going as far as Wolverhampton, interviewing people and searching for material that could form the basis of a dramatic work.
As it happens, Hackney resident Blythe found her focus for Little Revolution closer to home. She witnessed the looting of Siva Kandiah’s shop on Clarence Road, and returning the next day discovered that a group had been set up to help the riot-stricken shopkeeper.
“When I went back I met Tony and Sarah, who told me they were setting up a campaign, and that they’d seen the show that I had on at the time, London Road. I could see I had access to a forward development, a narrative, and that there were people here getting together trying to do something about what had happened. So that’s why I focused in on Hackney.”
What does the play bring to light about Hackney? As the play alternates between scenes of rioting, the work of campaign group Stop Criminalising Hackney Youth, and an incongruous- seeming plan to hold a community tea party, a more nuanced picture of Hackney begins to emerge.
“I think the show brings to light the sort of simmering class tensions that are probably quite prevalent in more and more parts of London with increasing gentrification,” says Blythe.
For Blythe the riots were a catalyst that opened her eyes up to class tension and division. “My play is trying to do something about it, whether it succeeds or fails. The community tea party tries to do something about it, Stop Criminalising Hackney Youth is trying to do something about it. It’s about people trying to connect and maybe misfiring.”
The idea of recording real people then getting actors to speak their words surely makes Blythe’s relationship to her material more complex than the norm. What if one of the characters comes to see the play and takes offence, or claims they’re being misrepresented? “I’m always very, very nervous,” Blythe admits. But I try to explain to people that it’s not a biography of their lives, that I’m a dramatist. Yes it’s their real words but they were edited, and I tried to be up front as much as possible with those central characters.”
When I caught a Saturday evening performance, the character of Councillor Ian Rathbone was a constant source of laughter, while newsagent Siva found himself patronised at every turn by his middle class benefactors. I ask Blythe whether she’s received much feedback from the people themselves.
“Councillor Rathbone absolutely loved it and wants us to take it to Hackney,” she answers. “And Siva I think found it very moving. Being in it, I spotted him in the audience. Of course I started to think it must be so traumatic for him, and that maybe this was a bad idea. But he loved it and said he was moved to tears.”
Little Revoultion is not Blythe’s first play about Hackney. Her play-writing debut was with Come Out Eli, about the Hackney Siege of 2002. At the time she was another struggling actor, and wrote the play essentially to get work.
In each of her plays Blythe has used the verbatim method of play-writing she discovered at a workshop at the Actors’ Centre 12 years ago. Given that each character is real and the meticulous care taken with dialogue, it’s tempting to call Little Revolution a rewitnessing of the events of August 2011. Blythe points out, however, that while realistic, the play has been shaped through what she saw.
“I’m telling it how it happened but through my eyes. One of the criticisms is there are not enough voices of the rioters or of the youth. The show illustrates how I tried, but those voices are really difficult to capture. People are responding to a white middle class woman – they would respond differently to a young black male. It’s a very personal thing, how I engage with people and how they engage with me, and whether they choose to or not.”
‘Community’ is at the centre of Little Revolution, attested by the Community Chorus, a crew of local volunteers that – it should be said – integrates seamlessly into the professional cast. These bystanders, rioters and residents are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. One wonders how many of these indirect real life subjects of the play have seen or know about it.
“Rupert [Goold, the Almeida’s new artistic director] was keen to reach out to a broader audience, and the theatre has been doing first time tickets for five pounds,” Blythe informs me.
Blythe sees no problem with the propensity of “middle class voices” in the play; she says it is as much about these middle class voices “trying to reach out to the other side of the street”.
“I don’t think theatre can change things greatly,” she adds. “But I do think it can get people talking about things. If people come out of the theatre talking about these issues then I think that’s great because it’s made them think about it in a different way.”
Little Revolution is at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, N1 1TA until 4 October.