It may act as a sad indictment of the limited attention span of the modern news cycle but the 2011 London Riots feel like they belong to a different era. People talk about the Poll Tax Riots but we seem to collectively forget that just four years ago large parts of London were filled with anger, frustration and nameless faces howling their protest against the body politic. Deprivation and opportunity came together in a furious explosion of pent-up energy. London burned. Not metaphorically but actually. Shops, homes and even our cultural treasures turned to ash (Back catalogues from Rough Trade, Warp and Ninja Tunes, alongside Nick Park original figures, can be countered among those lost to the destruction).
The story has been told, but not well and not often. Song of Riots gives us a version that is relevant and theatrical without feeling didactic. It is not here to preach, it is not here to understand. It tells stories unrelated to the riots but intrinsically understands the root causes. It is of life now but it tells a timeless tale.
It hones in on the idea of frustrated masculinity. In the more deprived areas of inner-London we have a generation of young men growing up without the job opportunities afforded to their parents. In London there are always hundreds of jobs, but they are not for the unskilled and under-educated. Young men live in a consumerist society in one of the wealthiest cities in the world and yet their existence goes unnoticed and unspoken.
Lucy Maycock has focused on the link between folk myth and modern life, and weaves the relatively unknown Grimm Brothers tale of Iron Hans into an exploration of what it is to become a man in London. It is co-directed with Chrisopher Sivertsen (Song of the Goat – and responsible for the remarkable Songs of Lear), and between them having created a wonderfully dynamic work that fuses dance, live music and storytelling.
There are many superb moments in the show. The audience enter to a pre-show of the four male members of the cast engaged in ritualistic wrestling; a sport from across history that blurs the boundaries between fighting and social interaction, and one rooted in masculine expression. The play opens with a mixture of beatbox and cello, a nod towards the intertwining of two very differnet worlds.
The dialogue of the Iron Hans myth is spoken in rhyme and with a lyricism underscored by the ever present cello. It relates to a world of folk tales, of an old England underscored with old values. But the message it sends is still very relevant. As the story merges with the modern world it changes, beatbox and drums underscore a verse delivered with inflections of hip-hop. It is a neat switch, with the epic, grand style of the past meeting the dominant poetry of the present. The fluidity of the storytelling is matched by an underpinning gracefulness in movement. Dance (another ancient ritual) is ever present in the staging. It creates a free expression when characters are alone, and offers a balletic grace to the piece when actors come together.
There are some excellent individual moments, and the scenes between the defiantly English son and his Polish mother are powerfully handled. The playing out of the same scene, and the same dialogue, in different moods and styles manages to avoid seeming like a purely dramatic device, and instead hints at the limited ability to the suffocating, familiar nature of life that has limited options and how man will eventually feel as a caged and dangerous as the Wildman of the Iron Hans myth.
It is the nature of a show with so much ambition that not everything will land successfully. However it is always interesting, and has some neat ideas that I have not seen before. The successes outweigh the failures, and it is far more engaging then any number of earnest social explorations. And there is no reason to take my word for it, instead success should be measured the level of applause offered by the school parties that surrounded me, for whom the story it tells should be far more relevant and powerful.
Watch a teaser trailer