London riots prove creative spur for Hampstead Theatre’s new police exposé, Wildefire

Lorraine Stanley who plays Gail Wilde plus playwright Roy Williams plus actor Eric Kofi Abrefa in Wi

Lorraine Stanley who plays Gail Wilde plus playwright Roy Williams plus actor Eric Kofi Abrefa in Wildefire - Credit: Archant

Playwright Roy Williams’s new show explores corrosive effect of dealing with chaotic humanity on a daily basis.

Lorraine Stanley who plays Gail Wilde plus playwright Roy Williams plus actor Eric Kofi Abrefa in Wi

Lorraine Stanley who plays Gail Wilde plus playwright Roy Williams plus actor Eric Kofi Abrefa in Wildefire - Credit: Archant

The social fractures exposed by the London riots have proved a creative spur for playwrights - from Alecky Blythe’s verbatim drama Little Revolution to Thick Skin Theatre’s locally-set Chalk Farm.

Roy Williams’ take on the events of August 2011 has been three years in gestation, and explores the corrosive mental and physical effects of dealing with chaotic humanity upon those who police our cities.

Wildefire follows WPC Gail Wilde on her journey from idealistic eagerness to cynicism and disillusionment.

“I have always had a curiosity and hankering to do a play about the police,” says Williams, who has carved out a reputation for examining the moral and social complexities of contemporary Britain.

“They are so often in the newspapers particularly when things go wrong; like plebgate or the riots.

“Over the years I’ve met police officers while researching other projects, they told me stories and I always wondered how did it change them - always seeing people at their worst?

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“It was the all the debates and arguments about the riots that sparked off things in my head. I felt ‘I am ready now. I feel I can write that play’. Come at it from a different angle in a way that’s more exposing.”

Growing up in Ladbroke Grove in the 80s, the 46-year-old admits to an ingrained ‘them and us’ mentality towards the boys in blue.

“We saw them as Thatcher’s soldiers, willingly doing what she told them to do. But now I see during the Brixton riots they were thrown out there with little protection and told to deal with it.

“The same happened in 2011. The trouble in Tottenham because people were angry about police shooting an unarmed black man was predictable, but what happened after took everyone by surprise, including the police.

“That was no longer about Mark Duggan but about people taking an opportunity to smash and burn and grab whatever they could lay their hands on.

“I must admit I had a level of sympathy for the Police who were told ‘get out there and get on with it’.

“It confirmed what I have always felt, regardless of my both positive and negative feelings about them. They do a hard bloody job. On a daily basis they dea with scum, murderers, rapists, and encounter the worst of human nature.

“I should entertain the possibility of having compassion for them.”

Gail Wilde and her colleague Vince were originally small parts in William’s 2008 Iraq war play Days of Significance, and although he didn’t set out to make his protagonist a woman, he felt telling the story of the police force - with all its rules and broken rules and crossing of blurred lines, through the eyes of a police woman seemed more dramatic”.

“She’s got no choice but to become the policewoman she is by the play’s end. It asks what kind of police force do we want?”

With a reputation for capturing the vernacular of contemporary urban dialogue, Williams’ banter between officers reflects the insidious ways that race, class and gender attitudes play out.

“Gail, like the black coppers have made the decision long before the play begins to ignore or go along with an ingrained culture that’s borderline racist and sexist but not as obvious or explicit as in the 80s. That’s the way it is for most work places, no-one’s overt. It’s swept under the carpet now.”

Asked whether he backs the Act For Change movement - calls by British black actors for more diverse colour neutral roles - Williams agrees “more is needed” but counsels not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

“I do slightly worry. I don’t want that across the board.

“There is nothing to fear from having culturally specific black characters in drama. If a character needs to be a certain colour the writer should be allowed to say that.”

He smiles, “I want them both. It’s not just about quantity of roles but quality. I don’t care if I only see one black person in a drama over a weekend as long as it’s a quality role. If that character has been given nothing to do that angers me more than the number. Sometimes it’s clear they don’t know what to do with that character because they are black.”

That’s not a charge you could aim at Williams who’s written cracking parts for actors of all races and genders in plays such as Sucker Punch, set in an 80s boxing gym; Fallout, about the aftermath from a gang of lads who kick a boy to death; and Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, set in a pub during a Germany England game.

Williams adds: “I get ideas all the time but spend ages trying to work out how the hell to tell it - I have a lot of plays sitting in the bottom drawer because I can’t make them work. All stories have been told so it’s all about how I want to test myself, test the audience, do it in a way they haven’t seen before. It’s a personal connection or perspective, a response that’s to do with the person you are at that particular moment in your life.

Wildfire runs at Hampstead Theatre from 6-29 November.