The shooting of an unarmed man and the ensuing civil unrest is the subject of an original dramatic work by pupils at a York school. Pupils at St Peter’s School constructed a play out of the real words of people involved in the 2011 London riots.
The riots are still fresh in the minds of many, and much of the damage is still visible on the Tottenham streets. And yet, nearly two years after the riots took place, it seems the true cause of the unrest is still shrouded in denial, debate and obfuscation. This is what drama pupils at St Peter’s attempted to tackle in their recent play, entitled ‘Mark My Words’.
Loosely based on the Tricycle production called The Riots, the play was a piece of verbatim theatre; a type of documentary theatre wherein all the dialogue was stitched together from genuine accounts from police, rioters, politicians and Mark Duggan’s family. It also involved audience members participating in the play, circling the performers and taking on the role of an angry mob.
The starting stimulus for the pupils was being shown a photo of Mark Duggan, the man whose shooting at the hands of police was, some believe, the catalyst for the riots. Many of the pupils did not recognise the photo at first – an indication of how little understood this piece of recent history is, and how much research the pupils would have to undertake.
As the play evolved and their research continued, the pupils found their initial sympathies and prejudices challenged and changed. This resulted in a more balanced narrative with no clear villains or heroes.
During the play’s evolution, the group were visited by PC Horsley from the York Police Force, who also brought along nine riot shields to show the pupils. In a question and answer session with PC Horsley, he discussed with honesty his own personal experience when he was deployed to work in the London riots. His account brought another angle to the play’s story.
The play was performed by nine pupils, all in Fourth Form GCSE Drama. The title of the piece – Mark My Words – was decided by the ensemble to reflect the importance of Mark Duggan as a catalyst for the riots, and also to illustrate the importance of listening to dialogue in verbatim theatre.
Helen Lindley, Head of Drama at St Peter’s School, said:
Mark my Words was a fantastic opportunity for students to delve into complex political and moral issues concerning recent historical events. They used inventive structure and powerful physical theatre to engage the audience, as well as emotively telling the real stories of people directly involved in the 2011 Riots.
The result was an illuminating piece of didactic theatre and I think all members of the audience will have learnt something as well as being entertained for 40 minutes. For Fourth Form pupils to be confronting such a variety of viewpoints and performing them in front of an audience is a huge boost to their education, understanding of wider issues and confidence.
It shows that verbatim theatre can be a powerful political tool, allowing people sometimes not given a public forum to express their voice.