Issue 226 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Trade unionists outside the Lawrence inquiry


Inquiring mind

Nicolas Kent is the director of a new play, The Colour of Justice, which is based on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. He spoke to Yuri Prasad about the reasons for the play and his hope that it may contribute to the fight against racism

What motivated you to produce a play about the inquiry?
I've been involved in quite a few tribunal plays. It started with the Scott inquiry three years ago, which was a big success and was the first play ever to transfer to the Houses of Parliament. Then we did Nuremberg and Srebrenica because it was the 50th anniversary of the international war crimes tribunal. I wanted to resist doing any more. Gradually a lot of people wrote or rang me and said, why aren't you doing the Lawrence inquiry? It seems to me if you're doing a public inquiry the public should be allowed to see it and you should allow television cameras in. But that didn't happen.
I resisted because I didn't want to get known just for doing these plays. Then suddenly, just before the five suspects were part of the inquiry, I thought, this is perverse, why am I stopping doing this, it's a public interest subject, it's political.
I got Richard Norton-Taylor to collaborate with me on it. He's edited and encapsulated it very well and distilled 11,000 pages down to 150. So inevitably it's a partial account in all senses of the word, but nevertheless we've tried to answer every question that is posed.

How do your feel the medium of a play is particularly suited to this subject?
If television cameras were allowed in, it would have been televised on a daily basis. With an inquiry which went on for the best part of six months, you're going to lose the story at certain points. In the theatre you get a very good overview which is invaluable because it allows you to come to grips with a difficult subject.
The communality of sitting in an audience is a very bonding and reassuring experience, with people coming from all different angles. Some people are lawyers who know an awful lot. Some just want to show solidarity with the Lawrence family. Some know nothing about it and come because they're curious. This whole audience becomes something rather wonderful, just knits together and watches the play as a common experience. That, I think, is what theatre can do beyond anything, beyond television, even beyond film. It's very strong. I'm certain it will be a challenging evening. It allows an audience to be deeply intelligent. It expects an audience to rise to the challenge of difficult material.

Was there one element of the case that you found so shocking that you felt it had to be dealt with in this way?
Probably the most shocking thing was the desecration of the plaque to Stephen Lawrence. That was terrifying. The arrogance of the suspects was also pretty difficult. My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, so I find the racism completely abhorrent.
The other thing that shocked me a lot was Paul Condon. I'm not anti-police but I found it extraordinary that an intelligent man could not recognise that his force was institutionally racist.
One of the strongest examples of police racism is explored with a number of policemen early on in the way they talk about black people. A number of them use the word 'coloured'. Then it's revealed that there is actually a police document, that predates the inquiry by quite a few years, instructing policemen not to use the word 'coloured' but to use the word 'black'. They've obviously all ignored that. Then you have the deputy commissioner giving a very long apology for Condon to the Lawrence family and then he's asked about policing in certain areas. He says, well, it is more likely that some coloured people will get picked up.This is not an institutionally racist organisation! It doesn't make sense.

How do you think the recommendations the report finally makes can be enforced?
Obviously we must press the government and be vocal. In a way, just doing the play adds pressure. In daily life there are things you can do. You have a duty to abhor racism, to embrace positive action as an employer, to make sure that you address the concerns of the whole of your community. Running a theatre I try to do that. I fail quite a lot of the time, but I try. Keep the topic aired-- you must let people discuss and make people question.
What has the Labour government learned from this inquiry and what will the consequences of the inquiry be?
It was an election manifesto promise to set up the inquiry. Straw was then landed with that promise when he got into government and didn't know what to do. They have chosen an extremely good judge. I think MacPherson is genuinely shocked about what he's heard. One thing that's interesting in the British judiciary is that there are terrible judges and appalling miscarriages of justice, but when they get inquiries they seem to give it to the right people, by mistake and often by default. I think MacPherson is going to make very uncomfortable reading for the Home Office, not just the police force. I'm certain that they'll come out for the Met to admit that the force is institutionally racist.
I hope the report will be trenchant and will give 15 to 20 key recommendations and I'm certain that they can't be left lying on the floor. They've got to be instituted.
The Colour of Justice is at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, from 6 January to 6 February

Bright young things

Choice: New Plays by New Writers
The Royal Court/Marks & Spencer Young Writers Festival

Expecting some kind of backstreet fringe theatre where young new playwrights, actors and actresses would be airing their creativity, my heart sank a little to find that the evening's entertainment was sponsored by Marks & Sparks. But soon after the first performance started I became aware that it was possible to visit such places and be treated to some fine theatre.
B22, a play by 22 year old Ranjit Khutan, is a brilliant story involving a gay relationship between two young Asian men from Birmingham, complicated by one's impending arranged marriage and the other's absence due to studying at university. They meet up after four years on a park bench where they used to meet as children and argue out their differences of opinion.
Issues about culture and family loyalty also appear in Ed Hime's About The Boy. This is a side splittingly comic and often emotionally tragic play, which looks at the subjects of teenage alienation and the breakdown of communication within a family with great graphic and verbal intensity. It looks at the complete inability of two sons to deal with the death of the mother figure and how the father, played excellently by Christopher Ettridge, takes it upon himself to try and restore the family to its full complement via a video dating agency.
In The Crutch a cruel picture of deep rooted colonial racism versus sexual desire is displayed. Sri Lankan writer Ruwanthie De Chickera depicts in a short but involving play the relationship between a wounded martinet and his Sri Lankan wife.
In the strange, twilight, suburban United States of Christopher Shinn's Four, black academic Joe drives to pick up his date June, after they have arranged to meet through the internet. The awkwardness of the situation regarding the differences in experience of the two characters is always apparent and emphasised by the heterosexual relationship between Joe's daughter and her high school friend which runs parallel to theirs.
By the end of the first night I left feeling tired, yet inspired and eager to find out what the next night's performances had in store.
Richard Oberg's Trade turned out to be an interesting mixture of characters and storylines. The characters of the family were somewhat over-stereotyped as dimwitted northerners, to the humorous entertainment of the West End art theatre audience. But at other times they displayed beautiful feats of poetic escapism through wonderful direction and prose.
Bluebird by Simon Stephens also investigates the theme of escapism, this time by a novelist turned taxi driver, a man who after accidentally running over his baby daughter leaves his wife and turns to living and working in his taxi and surviving on the arbitrary and random nature of the conversations with his customers. This play proved to be highly entertaining with its rich array of different characters and their corresponding stories. The only let down was the reference to Marks & Spencer, which I can only attribute to a cheap publicity stunt and not to coincidence.
On the whole this series of plays by new writers from as far afield as Eltham and Sri Lanka was thoroughly entertaining and a good representation of the many cultural, social and political issues currently affecting, and being creatively tackled by, young adults.
Laurence Cliffe

Magical stories

A fine execution

Arabian Nights
by Dominic Cooke

Arabian Nights is brilliant-- the acting is great and you believe the characters are real. It's not like other pantomimes with the, 'Oh no, it's not, oh yes, it is.' When you first walk into the theatre it's like you're in someone's dream.
It's set in the far east and the main story is about a king. The king, the queen and the people lived happily until the king found out his wife was being unfaithful. So the king had his wife's head cut off. From that day on he hated all women and every day married a wife and the next day at dawn he had her head cut off. The people feared for their daughters. One day, one girl, the king's adviser's daughter, said, 'Let me marry the king.' Her father pleaded with her but she told him it was for the best. So that day she married the king.
Before she got killed the woman said to the king, 'If you spare my life, every night I will tell you a story until I run out of them. Then you can kill me,' and the king gave his word that he would save her life.
Every night she told a story. The stories included Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the 40 thieves.
The king's heart was sad. One day the girl's stories had run out, except one that had no ending. The king wanted to hear this story. He realised how horrible he had been and loved his new wife and his heart was no longer sad.
This pantomime was enjoyable and is great for adults and children. The lighting was really effective and made the whole theatre atmospheric with hanging lanterns, candles and smoke. The music added to the mood in each scene and made you feel sad, scared or happy. Last but not least, the costumes were beautiful with lots of colour shining under the lights.
Siobhan Evans Arabian Nights is at the Young Vic, London, throughout January

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