King John, Act 3, Scene 1
Since the London riots of 2011, there have been surprisingly few cultural responses to, what Rupert Goold calls, “the astonishing explosions of chaos three summers ago”. Luckily, the Almeida Theatre is here to help, with the world premiere of ‘Little Revolution’, a piece of verbatim theatre written by Alecky Blythe.
Verbatim theatre is basically ‘documentary theatre’; where the whole of the script is constructed from the precise words used at the time. In this instance, Blythe went out in the streets of Hackney during the riots and the ensuing clean-up, and recorded interviews, meetings and incidents on a Dictaphone. Blythe plays herself in the production, which at first, I have to admit, I thought was a little self-indulgent. But actually this works surprisingly well; by taking the mickey out of herself she avoids this pothole, and provides a frame for all the interviews.
Unusually, every single one of the actors has headphones in throughout the play, playing the actual interviews to them so that they can imitate the exact accents, inflexions and emphasis of the original people. I’d be really interested to know how much this helps the actors, as personally, I didn’t completely see why it was necessary.
Apart from that, this is a really interesting play, and the actors do an excellent job of inhabiting the massive amount of characters who run, sit, stroll and shout their way across the stage. Every inch of the auditorium, and this, combined with the new ‘in-the-round’ layout and the house lights being on for most of the play, meant that there was definitely a constant feeling of action and movement, which kept the story speeding along nicely.
There was a great principal cast, including Ronni Ancona and Imogen Stubbs; my personal favourites were Michael Schaeffer (previously brilliant in the controversial Mr Burns) as Tony, a ridiculously middle-class hippy; Lucian Msamti who was the sage barber Colin; Clare Perkins as Deanne, by far the funniest of all; and Rufus Wright as a variety of characters, but particularly as a somewhat smug, bemused German reporter from ‘Der Spiegel’ – the accent was spot on. I discovered a key advantage of verbatim theatre; a playwright would generally not invent contradictory characters, at least, without them having some sort of ‘past’ or reason for being like that. However, the recordings revealed these contradictions, yet could never hope to explain them, just like in real life. We were given brief glimpses into these people’s lives, focused on one specific point, and then they were gone. Slightly frustrating, maybe, but very realistic.
One of the greatest strengths of this play, however, is not the main cast, but the ’Community Chorus’ made up of 31 volunteers, aged between 16 and 74 (but mostly pretty young), some of whom have small speaking parts, but all of whom contribute a lot to the atmosphere. The riots themselves, or the somewhat dubious tea party held to bring the community together simply would not have the same impact without a number of bodies on stage and off stage whooping and shouting and running and clutching looted goods and arguing with the police.
The plot suffered somewhat from having few interviews with the rioters themselves, as most of the opinions seemed to come from the people dealing with the aftermath of the riots, rather than those directly involved and/or arrested. However, this was sort of explained. In the rare interchanges, the rioters were never violent towards Alecky, only concerned that their identities should not be known. I thought it was particularly interesting that each exchange finished with: “Look after yourself. Take care.” It definitely showed that at the very least not all of the rioters had particularly malign intent; they just seizing an opportunity or going along with the crowd.
Another more significant disappointment was the ending, which just… kind of… petered out. It’s hard to have a perfect ending when it’s verbatim; real life isn’t nearly as perfectly mapped out as fiction. Still, I don’t feel like the full impact of the final court ruling really comes across; and, for reasons which are explained lengthily (!) in the play, there are no further interviews with any of the previous subjects. The story seems somehow unfinished – or like it needs the final bit of a historical movie – when the screen goes black and white words quickly inform us of everything they couldn’t fit in/didn’t think was important.
Overall, this is a timely, thought-provoking production, with great atmosphere and a large and engaging cast. The use of verbatim theatre is mostly a success, although leaves a somewhat flat ending, after all the previous action. Ooh, and a side note – the programme is chock-a-block with interesting facts, figures, rehearsal photos (always my favourite bit!), articles and interviews. Definitely worth your £4!
Little Revolution at the Almeida Theatre: 3/5 stars
(P.S. Extra insight from someone who’s actually studied verbatim and Blythe – thanks Anna!
“In reference to you mentioning your interest in finding out about how helpful the earphones is to the actors – well some find it helpful while others really struggle, because its not really for them. Blythe loves using the headphones in order to make the actors speak word for word, copying accent and intonation. Its in fact a way of her sticking to extreeeeeme verbatim! I’m a big fan of blythe, some people hate her use of verbatim though.” )