Corbynite playwright Leo Butler: ‘This government has to change, or we’ll reach breaking point’
08:00 24 March 2016
Flashback to the summer of 2011, and the London riots. Smashed up shops, blazing buildings, communities divided, and youths looting: images imprinted on every Londoner’s mind.
It’s when playwright Leo Butler begun work on his latest political piece, Boy, about an underprivileged 17-year-old with no job prospects called Liam, who is unfairly labelled “trouble” by the people he meets.
“I think the riots were a real turning point,” Butler explains. “It’s when we started saying there’s trouble on the streets and that there’s a problem that needs addressing with young kids who can’t be allowed to go and smash up shops.
“There should have been a real analysis into why kids felt that way, to have such disregard for their community that violence was the only way to get themselves heard,” he adds.
“Children are the future. It sounds like a Michael Jackson song but they are the most valuable thing in our whole society.”
Back to the present day, and Boy is about to have its first ever run at Islington’s Almeida Theatre.
But Butler says that if anything, the story is more relevant than ever.
“Most people around Liam assume he’s trouble, or to be avoided, and that’s because of the negative press towards kids and people in impoverished circumstances,” the 41-year-old explains.
“That’s from things like [TV documentary] Benefits Street, or the government’s policy on welfare.
“If you are in bad circumstances, then you’re told it’s your fault and you need to take responsibilty because you have a choice and you made it. This is wrong.”
The play practises what it preaches. For the production, the Almeida has teamed up with Arsenal in the Community, an outreach programme run by the football club to engage young people in Islington.
Playwrights, including Butler, will give writing classes to more than 40 youngsters over the course of six weeks, asking them to respond to some of Boy’s central themes.
Their ideas for plays and monologues will then be presented by theatre directors and actors on stage at the theatre during Boy’s run.
The youngsters’ work will also be filmed and released online.
“Even if it’s just for a moment or an afternoon, it’s a chance for young people to know that their voice is heard and wanted,” says Butler, who lives in south-east London.
“Sometimes you get the most interesting work from someone who has never set foot in the theatre,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s more exciting than anything a professional writer could produce and you can’t put a price on that.
“If every second word is ‘f***’, that’s really interesting. It’s about expression.”
Supernumeraries have also been recruited locally, something which Butler hopes adds to the play’s gritty realism.
Almost all of Butler’s 13 plays could be described in that way, with many set against a political backdrop.
2008’s Faces in the Crowd focused on a couple coping with financial uncertainty at the end of New Labour, while his first full-length play, Redundant, in 2001, was about teenage pregnancy.
Boy’s themes of urban deprivation makes it no different.
Inspiration was close at hand for the self-confessed Corbynite, who drew on his disdain for the Conservative government.
“There’s a need that’s not being addressed by the Conservative government and for all the teething problems around Jeremy Corbyn, he has a resilience and popularity among ordinary people,” Butler explains.
“Something will change, and we’re looking at something that will be gradual, but hopefully the democratic system will allow for change.
“If it doesn’t, then potentially we’re looking at, not riots, but there will be a breaking point.
“It will become tougher and tougher until we reach that breaking point.”
As a dramatist, Butler can’t change governments, something which clearly frustrates him.
But he can channel that political anger into highlighting the lack of opportunities for disadvantaged youth.
“Plays can’t change policy but they can get into people’s heads and under people’s skin, and make them look at the world slightly differently,” he says.
“I can ask them to see the world through a 17-year-old’s eyes, which is an interesting thing to do.
“It’s like throwing pebbles into the water; they’re small, but can cause ripples.”
Boy runs from April 5 until May 28, book tickets here.