August 2011: let’s have a chat

Profound questions, no profound answers

Maciej Zurowski reviews a play about the 2011 summer riots: Archie W Maddocks, 'Mottled lines' (director: Henry Bell)

Inspired by the outbreak of underclass rage that rocked the UK in August 2011 and dedicated to “those who rioted and those who didn’t”, Mottled lines is the debut of the 23-year-old playwright Archie W Maddocks. At its sharpest, the play accurately captures the psychological and ideological motivation of its protagonists - in the case of its two Tory characters frighteningly so. At its wobbliest, it appeals to nothing more progressive than the idea that people should be nicer to each other.

Fear and a resulting breakdown of communication are the central themes of this fragmentary observation of a ‘dog eat dog’ society. Instead of merely depicting the events of August 2011, the play sets out to explore their causes through a string of monologues. Characters such as The Thug and The Fight are intended to represent archetypes from a cross-section of British society rather than specific individuals.

A black working class woman, The Sparkle, depicts the bleakness and fear that set the tone in her neighbourhood - to intense, yet easily achieved effect. Likewise, few Guardian-educated members of the audience would have found it difficult to comprehend the frustration of The Fear, a young gang member who is not given a piece of the cake and consequently extorts crumbs at knifepoint. A guilty concern for the lower orders (provided they do not live next door) is a capacity that the middle strata of British society have long been trained to possess. However laudably intentioned these sentiments may be, challenging they are not.

More interestingly, we encounter a frustrated copper, contemptuous of unemployed youths and disillusioned with the lack of support he receives from his masters. Initially appearing like a stereotypical authoritarian, he soon reveals his profound fear of the angry mob he has to confront - and gradually wins our empathy. Similarly, the way in which the Conservatives’ monologues make us question whether the ultra-competitive training ground for overachievers and alpha males, the British public school, can be in any way considered a humane means of bringing up children, makes for uncomfortable moments of contemplation - despite the characters’ revolting sense of entitlement.

If the all-too-familiar, personalised narrative of greedy bankers, corrupt politicians and racist cops, whose ill will is supposedly the root of all evil, is undermined, if something a little more systemic is hinted at, then it is not entirely unreasonable to anticipate a radical calling into question of the very pillars upon which our society rests. Regrettably, however, that is where Mottled lines lets us down, based as it is upon an erratic premise. Fear, prejudice and the sectional ideologies held by the characters are not understood as symptomatic of the underlying social conditions, but as the very causes of social conflict. It is implied that a change of attitudes, a simple overcoming of prejudice, would facilitate communication and relieve the tensions perceived to be eating away at society like a cancer.

Consequently, the playwright lamented in the Q&A session after the performance that politicians, the police and the underclass do not “chat to each other” enough. Meanwhile, the very existence of social classes, the relation between rulers and ruled, was virtually taken as a natural fact of life. For Mottled lines is, ultimately, a very British play - a play about ‘us’. As such, it is far less removed from its Tory characters’ lamenting “our once great nation” or Cameron’s real-life talk of a “broken Britain” than it imagines itself to be. For all its - somewhat toothless - invoking of the MP’s expenses scandal, it is essentially informed by the spirit of Miliband’s ‘Let’s all sit around a table and negotiate’ and Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’. True to the nationalist dream shared by everybody from the liberal left to the extreme right, it wishes for a class society without class antagonisms (or perhaps just not quite so many class antagonisms, because, as the director and the playwright agreed during the Q&A, a society “in perfect harmony” would be “a bit Star Trek”, as well as “a bit Stalin”).

Most of the monologues that Maddocks conceived were sharp and the characters terrifyingly authentic. No doubt we are dealing with a gifted young playwright. It is a pity, then, that at a time when the youth are getting restless and Marx is being discussed in bourgeois newspapers once more, the most radical probing he subjects our society to resembles a hangover of post-left academia. It is that woolly zone where all oppressive relations derive from a fear of the Other, where class is just another ‘identity’, and cultural voluntarism can make the world a better place - or at least a place with a friendlier-looking veneer.

Sometimes, people conceal their helplessness by claiming they wish to avoid preaching, and if the Mottled lines publicists billed their play as “thought-provoking” and “asking questions rather than offering solutions”, then part of the reason is that there are no solutions as long as class society persists. During the Q&A session, it was all very well for the assembled liberals to ponder whether the play contained sufficiently strong female characters. But what about the society that throws up generations growing up on benefits - collateral damage in the global competition of rival states? They are fully aware they serve no purpose and are therefore viewed as mere scum. Could the British political class really solve this problem, even if it actually wanted to?

If Maddocks has a genuine desire to challenge the status quo, he will have to dig deeper to illuminate the root of the problems he sets out to examine. After all, talent is not what he lacks.


Mottled lines first ran at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre from July 10-14