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Alecky Blythe leading a little revolution in verbatim theatre with new London Riots show

PUBLISHED: 11:09 25 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:09 25 September 2014

Alecky Blythe and Clare Perkins in rehearsal for Little Revolution

Alecky Blythe and Clare Perkins in rehearsal for Little Revolution

Manuel Harlan

Plunging audiences into the heart of the London riots and and their aftermath, Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution has been a revelation in its opening weeks at the Almeida in Islington.

Both an examination and celebration of London’s cultural diversity, much of the play’s intrigue has come through its verbatim style – which sees actors re-enacting via earphones the scenes and conversations of real people Blythe met while travelling around post-riots Hackney with a microphone.

Having built her reputation with this unusual, semi-documentary style – most notably with 2011’s London Road, a sell-out West End musical detailing the aftermath of the Ipswich serial killings – the playwright is a devout believer in its relatively untapped potential.

“I think there’s loads more that can be done with it,” she explains. “London Road is just one example of going, ‘Ok, let’s try to make a verbatim musical. That would be fun’.

“I’m sort of keen to keep trying it in new ways, so in this you have the community chorus [which saw the Almieda projects team recuit local volunteers to act in the show] and it’s quite less theatrical. You have to keep being bold and brave.”

As a Hackney resident, Blythe found herself braving not just the danger of the riots themselves, but also putting in the hours to help out in the lives of the indignant parents and distraught victims – such as Clapton shopkeeper Siva – who were affected afterwards.

This immersive research saw her become so personally involved in events that she was even persuaded by director Rupert Goold to star as herself in the show.

The idea marked a curious turn of events, as previously Blythe had tried for years to make a career of acting. “I never thought I’d find anything that would match that,” she says, but after learning of verbatim theatre through actor Mark Wing-Davey, she was encouraged to write her own production and found a new thrill from the process of creation.

“When I started, it was just instinctive – I suppose I am still quite instinctive. I’ve never had any real, formal training as a writer; I came into it as an actor. So I sort of go for bits that either move me or capture me in some kind of way, and also try to tell a story that’s clear but dramatic.

“My first play, Come On Eli, it was published not so long ago, so I had to go back to all the material and proof it. I thought that, in a way, it’s much less sophisticated than what I’m doing now, but what it’s got is the real verbatim gold dust in terms of wonderful serendipity in moments and happenings.”

Of course, the danger with this quasi-journalistic approach is that while the editing and arrangement of Blythe’s plays do give them the artful, interpretive nuance of traditional theatre, their basis in reality means she is dealing with sensitive events and the emotions of the people affected by them.

Making a musical out of murder, for instance, is something that has to be treated with care and the writer is keen to avoid upsetting those at the heart of the matter.

“All the time I’m sensitive to who I’m going to talk to and what I’m going to ask about, and it’s something that only reveals itself as the interview starts up; you don’t know where you’re going to be able to go with it.

“For example, with Siva, although the play starts with his shop getting trashed, I didn’t then keep hounding him for interviews – in the same way that, in London Road, I didn’t go down the route of pursuing the families.

“I normally try to look at things a few degrees away from the centre of the storm, because it still affects people on other levels and that’s what’s interesting and that’s what people maybe want to talk about.”

Blythe seems to be getting the balance right, and there is the increasing sense that she is pioneering a snowballing movement in modern theatre. At its most powerful, her verbatim work provides a bridge between high art and reality; whatever the form, is that not a goal that every artist at some point strives towards?

Little Revolution runs at the Almeida until October 4. Visit almeida.co.uk


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