Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
by Cindy Oswin
Criminal Justice is the latest production of Banner Theatre and continues their tradition of using a variety of media and styles to tell the story of resistance to the 1994 Criminal Justice Act(CJA). Using real life experiences its political message is, 'Yesterday it was them. Tomorrow it might be you.'
Documentary drama is used to show the manner in which the British state treats its political opponents. This is interwoven with tape recordings of its victims recounting their imprisonment and torture in their own voices, and slide shows. Parallels are drawn with the treatment of innocent Irish people under the Prevention of Terrorism Act(PTA) and shows how such repressive legislation passed by the British government supposedly to deal with 'terrorism' in Northern Ireland is in fact a dummy run for the kind of measures they would like to use against domestic political opposition.
The same techniques are used to portray the experiences of gypsies, new age travellers, ravers and roads protesters. Diverse styles of song are used to tell their stories; folk, rock, reggae and country. Links are drawn between the criminalisation and scapegoating of gypsies under the CJA and the murder of two million gypsies in the Nazi concentration camps.
Satire is used to good effect, as Inspector CJ Adams tells the truth about the CJA from the police perspective. As a reward for his exceptional ability at assaulting innocent people with his new 24 inch sidehandled baton, Adams tours Britain giving lectures to coppers on the CJA. His audiences are delighted as he informs them of all the black people, travellers, ravers and demonstrators they are going to be able to arrest, the violent methods they will be authorised to use if they suspect someone might be about to break the law, and all the overtime they will be able to earn. Adams, based at Steelhouse Lane police station (where the Birmingham Six were taken), advises them to buy shares in the Tories' new private prisons, anticipating these to be the growth sector of the 1990s, as the Tories lock up 11 to 14 year olds for their first offence.
As a result, the police force goes into a frenzy, locking up the entire British army, the royal family (for non-payment of rent), and the political establishment, including, to the amusement of a section of the audience, Tony Blair. As Britain collapses into chaos, revolution is on the agenda.
Criminal Justice is not just about how bad the CJA is, but about the resistance to it. The first half of the play ends with a slide show of people fighting back: disability rights protests, lesbian and gay demonstrators, and protests against live exports, to the accompaniment of the Italian socialist anthem, Bandiera Rossa(Red Flag). In the most compelling scene of the evening, the courageous final stand of the M11 anti-motorway campaign is acted out. We are told that it took the hundreds of police, bailiffs and security guards four days to clear the site of protesters, costing the government over £2 million.
It is here that the political weaknesses of the campaign against the CJA are reflected in the play. Small groups of individuals, living in squats and communes, outside of mainstream life, are seen as being the way forward. There is no sense that workers' struggles at the point of production are the place where we are strongest against the law. In fact it was with these struggles in mind that the CJA was primarily dreamed up.
Putting aside these few points, Criminal Justice is an entertaining and informative production which I would advise all readers to see.
Criminal Justice tours the country in February and March