Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Little Revolution, Almeida Theatre

Review: Little Revolution, Almeida Theatre

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s response to the 2011 riots, has been unfairly rounded on by critics that want it to be something it’s not. “Little Revolution,” writes Aleks Sierz for the Arts Desk, “tells us nothing we didn’t know about the 2011 riots; it comes late after the event; it says more about the difficulties of recording people in stressful situations than about the events themselves; it seems to have no politics; worst of all, it has no imagination and lacks any metaphoric resonance.”

With all due respect to Aleks, it’s hard to imagine a paragraph that could do Little Revolution a greater disservice. Blythe and her director Joe Hill-Gibbins are one, two, three steps ahead of every criticism he throws their way. Little Revolution’s brilliance lies precisely in the way it wrings meaning out of its own failures: both Blythe’s failures in the field and theatre’s (inevitable) failure to represent the riots. In this, Little Revolution becomes its own metaphor. Its failures are those of society as a whole and, by looking inwards, Blythe builds a potent, novel, and yes, political argument about the riots: namely, that mainstream society has failed to affect significant, meaningful change in response to the riots, because to do so would be to its own detriment. Little Revolution shows how the response to the riots has nullified their threat and maintained the status quo.

*****

On Monday 8th August 2011, two days after a peaceful protest on Tottenham High Road spontaneously combusted into violence, Blythe took her dictaphone out into Hackney as the London riots entered their third day. Brixton and Edmonton had flared up the night before and there was a certain inevitability that further incidents would follow that evening. Those with the right Blackberry Messenger connections knew that Hackney was up next.

That Monday evening, Blythe was in the thick of things, sidling up to looters and onlookers alike, asking questions and trying to capture something of the unfolding chaos. Little Revolution attempts to place some of those events and encounters onstage. Blythe found herself by a newsagents being looted. A car was burning outside. She tried to take photos on her cameraphone, only to be confronted by looters concerned about being identified. Mostly she speaks to people like her, those hanging about, watching.

“There’s a story here, isn’t there?” she asks one, as the shop’s being plundered. That question’s at the heart of Little Revolution: it’s not a genuine question. It’s loaded. It’s leading. It’s a question that knows exactly what it’s doing and exactly what it wants in reponse. It’s a question designed to prize a story from the subject, a story that can be chopped up, fed through headphones and delivered onstage. It’s followed immediately by Alecky Blythe’s laugh: “A-hahahaha.”

You hear that laugh a lot in Little Revolution. Girlish and ungainly, a little bit shrill and a little bit snorty, it’s the sot of laugh that belongs to a Mike Leigh character; a laugh that serves a social purpose, a laugh that betrays the laugher. Blythe’s laugh, like her question, isn’t genuine. Sometimes it’s nervous. Sometime’s it’s ingratiating. Blythe laughs to put people at ease – herself as often as her interviewees. In the middle of this riot, in the middle of Hackney, Alecky Blythe is out of her comfort zone and out of her depth.

Blythe has history with Hackney. Her first play Come Out Eli centred on a 16-day siege in the borough that happened at the end of 2002. It was her first attempt at using Mark Wing-Davey’s Recorded Delivery technique, in which actors wearing headphones repeat verbatim recordings as closely as possible, replicating every ‘um’ and ‘er,’ every cough and splutter. Come Out Eli played locally, at the Arcola, the following year and eventually snuck into a fair few of the end of year ‘Best of…’ lists, making the beginnings of Blythe’s name in the process.

Since then, Blythe has been described as a theatrical pioneer, having become synonymous with Wing-Davey’s technique. Her later plays have played at the Bush (Cruising), the Royal Court and the Young Vic (The Girlfriend Experience) and, most successfully, the National (London Road). The latter has also taken her to the BBC.

So when Blythe stepped out into Hackney on 8th August 2011, she was doing so as a celebrated verbatim playwright. She was chasing down a story with all the determination of Kaye Burley sprinting up a down escalator. That’s what we see in Little Revolution: Blythe went into the riot knowing that there was something – a play, a television programme, a story – in it. All she had to do was find it and lock it down in MP3 format. Blythe had to be there. To have missed it would probably have constituted professional misconduct.

Blythe makes herself central in Little Revolution – more so than ever before. In Come Out Eli, she appears as a character played by another actor. Here she plays herself and she portrays herself in a severely unflattering light. The most prominent image, in fact, is of Blythe heedlessly charging around Hackney, through a riot, dictaphone in hand, breathlessly squealing at strangers: “I’m a writer. I write plays.” You can hear the desperation in her voice. She recreates it exactly each night. The self-interest and the self-importance. The certainty. “There’s a story here, isn’t there?”

Remember what they say about the victors writing history. Little Revolution suggests the opposite: that whosoever controls history winds up victorious. Blythe wasn’t the only one out seeking the story that night. Sometimes it seems that she can’t get close to the action for all the others doing likewise. Her Dictaphone brims with journalists. BBC radio reports, sometimes two or three. Foreign correspondants from Germany. Citizen journalists. All of them snapping away on their camera phones, trying to capture some piece of the action, some shard of the story.

In all this, Little Revolution signifies its own contrivance. It does so from the start. Blythe begins by explaining her process – or rather, by replicating her previous explanation of her process to those auditioning for the community chorus. She even explains that she’s planning on using this explanation to start the show. It’s a start that spins a cyclone of self-consciousness.

Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production sets out to exacerbate that. Ian MacNeil’s design disrupts the Almeida space. There are new, fake galleries and seating banks held up by scaffolding. The tech store door sits open and we’re in the round, looking across at others. Paul Arditti’s sound design ramps up the sort of unstageable background noises from Blythe’s recordings: police horses tramping past, bottles smashing, sirens – all of them evidently not happening in the here and now. When Hill-Gibbins ‘stages’ riotous behaviour, he places it outside of the theatre, in the Almeida foyer, such that we can’t see it per se. The moment flags its inherent fakery, in much the same ways as the headphones worn by actors do. (Interestingly, Blythe’s early productions very deliberately ‘miscast’ actors, so that their age, gender and ethnicity never matched those they were playing. That’s been lost as her work has played more mainstream spaces that function through literalism. Pity.)

Now, if there’s one thing that the riots weren’t, it’s contrived. They were spontaneous and they spread like wildfire. Blythe’s early recordings stress the point. She’s met with blank responses. It’s all happening so fast. No-one really knows what’s going on, let alone what’s coming next. Such was the uncertainty, the flammability, that one middle-class couple had their bags packed at the back door for a quick getaway if necessary. Even Blythe’s desperation, the way she flits from person to person in the field, implies a reporter unsure what and where the story is, let alone how to pin it down.

In Blythe’s play, everyone’s trying to pin the riots down. In doing so, they control the story and in controlling the story, they define its terms. Little Revolution is, significantly, about language. It is about who gets to speak and how. Blythe’s argument rests on the way that eloquence wins the day and, accordingly, the way society excludes those not fluent in the language of mainstream society. (That’s why this is Blythe’s story to tell: her practice captures language in all its forms.)

At its centre, Little Revolution hones in on Siva, the newsagent whose shop was ransacked. In particular, Blythe follows an emergent campaign designed to seek recompense for the damage. It’s spearheaded by a couple of middle-class do-gooders, Guardianistas Tony and Sarah (brilliantly, yet sympathetically, skewered by Michael Shaefer and Imogen Stubbs), a local vicar and a local councillor. “God knows what it’s like being you…” one sympathises. They pronounce him “the famous Siva.” They mispronounce his name as Shiva. They become his PR team, pushing him onto This Morning and the front pages of the papers he sells. They start to define him: “He’s exhausted,” one explains. “What I think is amazing about Siva…” another starts. Siva himself barely gets a word in edgeways. At one point, he’s catcalled by a customer: “Hey Siva, how come you’re on the news?” There’s an edge of betrayal in the question, a sliver of accusation.

Elsewhere, Blythe shows us another campaign, run by two middle-aged white women from the nearby Pembury Estate, against the use of Stop and Search tactics by police that affects an inordinate number of young black men. They’re dismissive of the ‘Save Siva’ campaign, which they perceive as a fashionable cause, cut off from its real roots. They’re just as certain that they’ve got all the answers, but they’re blind to the fact that they’re speaking on others’ behalf as well, defining the terms of an issue that doesn’t directly affect them per se

Also prominent is a local barber, Colin, played by Lucian Msmati: a man in touch with his community, acutely aware of the absurdity, futility and even the disharmony of an M&S-sponsored street party – all bunting and cupcakes – being organised by the Save Siva campaign. Rather than leading a group from his community into dialogue, however, he stands on the sidelines, sniping about the divide.

Little Revolution repeatedly hones in on language. One or two ‘characters’ are next to incomprehensible. Msmati plays a mumbler, whose words to Blythe blur and fuse together. Another of his roles mimes speaking to Blythe, his words drowned up by the pips of a dictaphone, because Blythe forgot to press record. Later Msamati appears as a black street poet, who turns up at a street party and delivers a clunky improvised rap – only for Guardianista Sarah to suggest an alternative rhyme to finish on. When Blythe returns to the barbers – cynically – on the day of the Mark Duggan verdict, she records him watching the television: “He cannot be heard,” Colin muses of Duggan’s brother. “They didn’t hear the people’s voice in the first place, so why should they hear his voice now?” He’s the one who gives the piece its title: the riots were a “little revolution,” he says.

So, while Siva gets to speak, that’s only because those around him know how to speak ‘media’ and ‘politics.’ They speak ‘mainsteam.’ They speak ‘middle-class.’ They anoint “the famous Siva” as a cause, as a story and, in doing so, they set the terms of the narrative. Siva as good-guy. Siva as victim. Rioters as wrongdoers. As baddies. What was it David Cameron said? “Mindless violence and thuggery.” “Criminality, pure and simple.”

What those definitions refuse is the possibility that the riots stood for anything beyond that. They point-blankedly rule out the notion that these actions had a context and a cause. Even if we root them in opportunist, materialist terms, Cameron’s definition blocks out the culture that gave rise to that behaviour.

Little Revolution employs a community chorus alongside professional actors. Throughout, members of this chorus look on from the sidelines. They stand around the edge of the stage and the auditorium and they stare in, in silence. At one point, during the street party, a young woman sits and draws, in coloured chalks, a remarkably accurate portrait of Tony the lefty, in his floral shirt. Her drawing goes unmentioned and unnoticed, but it’s a manifestation of her watching.

That gaze, whenever it comes, is unnerving. It seems scornful in its silence, in its unwillingness to communicate, in its deliberate, antagonistic distance. That gaze takes place across a divide. It creates a divide. All this time, the middle-class do-gooders, the councillors, vicars and community figures, the media and the verbatim theatremakers – in essence, the establishment or, at least, the enfranchised – are looking in at these communities, dissecting and analysing, making presumptions and pronouncements, and yet all the while they completely fail to see them looking back, regarding everything with suspicion, socrn and disdain. The implication is that that’s what underpinned the riots: one group looking at another, them looking at us, and the feeling of exclusion that engenders. The riots were an expression of that. They had a target: the establishment. Us.

To a certain extent, therefore, Cameron can’t do anything but dismiss the riots as “criminality pure and simple” or “mindless violence and thuggery.” His survival as a politician and, indeed the survival of the society organised as such, depends on it. To admit otherwise would be to see the riots as Colin sees them: as a Little Revolution, and that means acknowledging that – no matter how spontaneous they were – they took aim at the middle-classes, the ruling establishment and mainstream society. It would mean admitting that the problem lies with us. There’s another reason why Hill-Gibbins puts the riots outside the space: we’re neither part of them nor privy to them.

Blythe’s argument is that the riots were a form of language in their own right: those denied a voice in society making themselves heard. If she’s advocating anything it’s that we – audience and society – need to listen to those unheard voices. To really listen. Not to assume, not to talk in accepted truths and known certainties, but to engage in actual, equal dialogue and to dabble with uncertainty.

And yet, here’s the problem Little Revolution faces, its essential paradox: how can a play at the Almeida, made by a celebrated verbatim playwright, give room to and engage those unheard voices? How can it reach them? It is itself part of the mainstream, establishment, middle-class culture these groups are excluded from, suspicious of and, indeed, revolting against.

Hence the contrivance of Joe Hill-Gibbins’ staging. He knows – wholeheartedly – that his community chorus stand in for a disenfranchised, unreachable group. Simply by virtue of being onstage at the Almeida, the community chorus cannot be those that they represent. They’ve had contact and accepted the institution’s terms. They have a voice. They can by seen by an audience.

Blythe’s real subjects will always remain outside of the Almeida’s grasp. In telling their story, she will always fail. Little Revolution is not, as several critics have written, “a resigned shrug.” It is far more exasperated than that. It knows that the best it can hope for, in its search for truth, are the pips of a dictaphone that’s not recording, and, when that realisation lands, all Blythe can do is slam her laptop shut. Her only alternative, as with Cameron, is to burn the Almeida to the ground.

Photograph: Almeida Theatre

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