Corruption: not confined to Jamaica

Triumph of Afro-Caribbean art

Roy Williams Kingston 14 Theatre Royal, Stratford; ends April 26

Why do we need a stage play in the age of movies, TV and net casting?

Well, as someone who has both written and taught audio-visual drama, I would still say that Roy Williams’s Kingston 14 is that distinctive thing - a good play and a political one. Here is an example of what a stage drama can do with the live presence of actors and the engaged intelligence of spectators.

Political drama is often associated with works where characters just voice positions (especially at the National Theatre) or a contest where characters outmanoeuvre each other (TV’s Borgen or House of cards). Kingston 14 is a character drama where an interaction of vivid individuals suggests more than family/colleague tensions or psychological issues.

This is a Caribbean play which is not just about the Caribbean, which is why it may be the most thought-provoking production currently in British theatre.

Men vs men

The play opens - and mainly stays - inside a police station in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. The set (designed by Ultz) is stark and sunlit, deserving of a hot spot. Joker (Goldie), a local gang leader, is in custody, but he seems confident that he will not be there long. The station officers are divided between the veterans, Sarge and Marcus, and young guns Carl and Neil.

Officer Marcus (Brian Bovell) has a dependence on a small whisky flask, while Carl (Charles Venn) likes action movies. Sarge (Trevor Laird) is the careful, mature one of the group and young Neil (Ashley Chin) follows Carl. They all speak in patois, for which the theatre supplies subtitles, though except for some of the longer speeches most playgoers should catch their drift.

The station has a visitor from London: James (Derek Elroy) a black police officer who does not hide his irritation about how disordered these local cops are. He also objects to their questions about whether he was ‘on the take’ back home. He has been supplied by the Met to help out and he strives to get three words out of Joker. Meanwhile reckless Carl and Neil go off and get themselves taken hostage. There is a case to be solved of who murdered a rich British tourist and a question of who will survive by the end among the ubiquitous firearms. Along the way we get various views of present-day Jamaica, of crime and poverty, of police and thieves, but the actual theme is not one you can confine to Kingston 2014. That is the question of corruption. We are presented with the corruption of a society (one that can stand for the ‘developing world’ generally), the corruption of the police (not confined to abroad, of course) and last, but by no means least, the corruption of the human being, especially the male.

The author, Roy Williams, is no stranger to plays about ‘blokes’. He has written about football fans, the boxing world and a gang on a London estate, winning awards doing it. The play’s approach to masculinity is not simple: we see the male roasting of the outsider by the tough insiders’ club, the callous jokes and the loud desperation. Marcus has a son who is a crime suspect, although he also remembers a father who was happy at Jamaican independence, but used a belt on his kids, saving his fists for their mother. James also opens up about his father, a man who migrated from Jamaica to England and then migrated back. Marcus has a thought for the visitor: James’s dad may not have left London because of him, but because of England. As Marcus is not happy with himself either, and he is nowhere near England, this is to make no assertions about one place being superior to another.

Roots of the problem

An audience facing a stage is always part of the production of a play. This production succeeds in setting up a constantly changing relationship with its spectators. We laugh at the wit and the horseplay, but we also observe and judge the characters’ denials and foolishness. We alternate empathy between the people onstage, complicit and critical. We may wonder which copper is going to prove the most corrupt.

The central conflict is not over what is to be done, but what is to be thought about this post-colonial society of violent men. Isn’t this what most people think about Jamaica, even if some soften it with observations about imperialism and neo-colonialism? Even prominent activists on the race and class issue have come back from a visit bemoaning the gunplay and hignorance of Kingston.

However, among the jokes at the expense of men from smaller islands and women in general, characters do make reference to the historical past. These are often made as a reminder to the newcomer, James, of where he is. Marcus, for one, refers to the start of the British occupancy in 1655, when plantation slavery was ruled by bourgeois adventurers and, from small beginnings, expanded over the centuries to become the basis of UK prosperity - and provided capital for the British navy and the industrial revolution. During the 18th century, more wrought iron was exported to the Caribbean plantations than to Africa, Asia and all the North American colonies combined. The importation too of millions from Africa (the only continent with the population size required) was not even defendable by the excuses that colonialism was educating the natives, respecting the culture or sharing some prosperity with the workers.

Of course, in time the British ruling class ‘abolished the slave trade’, but mainly because slave-owners, the planters, demanded a monopoly, particularly over British ships carrying their sugar. In the era of advancing free trade, and new imports of sugar from India, this helped prove that they were the wrong kind of exploiter. After this long period of lessons in harshness - this absolute model of exploitation of people’s skills and strength, for which no slave got compensation - all that was left was an economy still devoted to sugar and other raw materials. Kingston now is more like 19th century London, where the poor, individually and in groups, fight for the remains (but of decline rather than a Victorian expansion). Jamaica has more deaths by the gun (per 100,000 inhabitants) than anywhere in the world except El Salvador and Venezuela.

All correct or OK?

By act two the corruption in the play becomes something wider than that associated with the messing up of a particular post-colonial place. In the character of James we have someone fixed on doing things right, by the book, and pursuing his duty to apply the law. He has personal reasons for this: he was never on the take in London, but felt he had to protect himself by shielding fellow officers: in other words, his ‘gang’. He nevertheless takes a dim view of the locals’ small larcenies and corner-cutting to keep the peace: this would never be procedure in London.

And then, through this approach of the Met’s ‘good man’, one suddenly sees the point: a characterisation of London, of the UK, as a society obsessed with the appearance of moral (and indeed political) correctness, no matter what the reality. There is a corruption of the mind, as well as the material sort, what an acquaintance of mine calls “positive hypocrisy” - that is, the idea that half a step forward is better than none. Back home is a place full of mission statements and ad campaigns in favour of equality, efficiency and non-violence, yet it remains a society of exploitative, careless ‘boys clubs’. It also allows the west to lecture and occasionally intervene in the poor world (especially ex-colonies). Its shiny exemplar: Tony Blair.

Your reviewer did not get all the local references (JDF, bangarang) and missed certain details during the fast-moving climax, but the dialectic remains very clear. James insists on the right procedure; his dutiful interventions nearly cost a massacre. One local is killed - and not the worst ‘bad man’ in the vicinity. After this, James does at least use his force of character to provoke Marcus into recollecting that Jamaicans have a tradition of not wanting to be slaves to anything - a heritage going all the way back to the Maroons, runaways from Spanish colonialism, who made an island alternative in the hills. It is Sarge who utters the wisdom of someone operating on the ground: “Me do de best wid what me have.” The hope is that this attention to what is need not mean giving in all the time (play script published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama).

Thorough acceptance of how it is (the war of gangs) only leads to casualties. We might all be corrupt, in small ways or big, because we are involved, but we can also be involved in trying to target the sources of corruption and mess, through attitude and action. Jamaicans may no longer be slaves to the crown, but they are still in thrall to the USA, fashion, sectarian politics, etc.

The production suggests such implicit solutions and in doing so risks going on too long with too many endings. Some characters do change and reject certain habits. But this is no compensatory superhero drama or e-game, where a simple problem is corrected by simple force; or a costume telly series, where modern attitudes correct a world which does not look that bad anyway. This is a drama that informs and moves rather than reassures. Like the best plays, from Oedipus to A doll’s house, it challenges the characters’ self-images and the audience’s preconceptions.

It is energetically directed by Clint Dyer and the lighting by Jo Joelson keeps the heat on Ultz’s versatile set. If music and sound designer Richard Hammarton is responsible for the evocative noise of those tin doors slamming in the precinct, he should be nominated for this year’s sound effects award. The whole cast perform their characters through all their seasons. Goldie says more with his face and hands than most actors with an audition speech and Brian Bovell takes his Marcus from wit to sorrow, to reflection, engaging us like a favourite film actor or stand-up. Lastly, the overall speech rhythms and indeed physical movements in the performance make this spectator long for more triumphs of Afro-Caribbean art.

This is no staged debate, but, like Brecht’s Mother courage, this is a journey through complex seeing.

Mike Belbin