Drama out of a crisis, by Joseph McHugh

1 Sep 05
It's difficult to see local government as the stuff of good theatre. But David Edgar's play uses infighting at a failing council to make some trenchant points about democracy. Joseph McHugh reports

02 September 2005

It's difficult to see local government as the stuff of good theatre. But David Edgar's play uses infighting at a failing council to make some trenchant points about democracy. Joseph McHugh reports

A local authority fails its Comprehensive Performance Assessment and a civil servant from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is sent in to turn the council around. Unpleasant for those involved, but not exactly high drama, is it?

Think again. Later this month, a new play by British playwright David Edgar has its premiere at the National Theatre in London and takes precisely that premise as its narrative. Edgar, a writer whose work is often overtly political, has set Playing with fire in a fictional but recognisable northern town against a backdrop of racial tensions.

As the struggle between the ODPM hit squad and the Old Labour members of Wyverdale District Council unfolds, the relationship between central and local government, the failures of Blairism and the realities of modern multicultural Britain are all held under the microscope.

Edgar, speaking to Public Finance, acknowledged that local government is not the obvious choice of subject matter for a large-scale, ambitious state-of-the-nation play. 'I always thought local government would be an interesting area to explore, although of course that's somewhat counter-intuitive. “I've this interesting idea for a play about local government” sounds fairly unpromising,' he concedes.

But it turns out that Edgar's interest in the area is born of personal experience. His late wife, Eve Brook, was elected to Birmingham City Council on the Labour ticket in the 1980s, and rose to be chair of the social services committee between 1992 and 1996.

'Because she was on the council I got to know its workings quite well, and our social circle included a lot of other councillors,' he explains.

This first-hand exposure to town hall culture convinced Edgar that there was a story to be told about local government and what happens when it is stripped of power by the centre.

A CPA failure and the resulting government intervention provides the mechanism for an exploration of that story. The Labour-led authority – 'a monkey in a red rosette' would get elected – certainly has its challenges. It presides over schools with 'the lowest GCSE pass rates in the country', the 'worst council tax collection rate' and its wards are clustered among the most deprived 10% in the country. Meanwhile, the chief executive is on long-term sick leave.

A rotten political culture ferments the already toxic brew: members are riven by personal antagonism and are fundamentally out of touch with the residents, who are mostly unemployed and badly housed.

Alex Clifton, a high-flying troubleshooter in the ODPM, is sent in to fix this mess, but in doing so she has to face down the Old Labour dinosaurs on the council. She does, however, find one ally in the Labour group, Riaz Rafique, a Blairite councillor in his thirties who yearns to see Wyverdale transformed.

Edgar describes the story as being 'structurally a Western', and it is easy to see why – although the ODPM might resist being compared with cowboys. It is no accident that he uses such a metaphor to characterise the relationship between central and local government.

Several times he refers to the 'battle' being fought between town halls and Whitehall: it is one he feels is largely ignored. 'This battle, this war, has been going on, but because it's been going on in places like Walsall and Hull, people haven't been paying attention to it.'

Edgar's extensive research while writing the play confirmed that conviction. He spoke to politicians, civil servants, local authority chief executives and people involved in intervention teams. He also read Professor John Stewart's Modernising British local government and interviewed the author.

Edgar's conclusion is that the struggle for power between local and central government is encoded in the language that authorities have been forced to adopt in recent years.

There is one scene that will delight anyone exasperating by the spread of management jargon to the public sector. The councillors are forced to sit through a presentation on their recovery plan, given by Alex and the redoubtable Leena Harvey Wells, a former council chief executive who has set up her own consultancy, Habitus.

She exhorts them to make sure that 'those performance indicators are really SMART', before declaring: 'The crucial thing in my experience is making sure your corporate priorities deliver the three Es – that's economy, efficiency, effectiveness – while remaining in alignment with your basic themes, your core vision and your strategic goals.'

Unsurprisingly, her speech is greeted with a mixture of contempt and bewilderment. But alongside the humour, Edgar is making a serious point. 'It dramatises what I think is the problem with the relationship between national and local government,' he explains. 'What national government wants is presented as being the only conceivable way of achieving an objective and [as something] that doesn't have any costs. The obvious example is the notion that the local authority is the provider of services to customers.

'That downgrades my relationship with the local authority as a citizen. I think I have an interest in how Birmingham's schools are run, despite the fact I have no children in its schools. As a citizen I think I have a role in that. But the language, the concept of service delivery, makes it quite hard to include those ideas.'

Edgar is equally scathing about the CPA. 'It's no coincidence that 'excellent', 'good', 'weak', do sound like the things you get in reports from primary school. It's a patronising relationship.'

The grave consequences of this lack of autonomy are shown in the second half of the play. The council is given funding, at Alex's bidding, from the Single Regeneration Budget to run a variety of projects in a largely Asian area of Wyverdale.

Translation services, diversity awareness training and a drop-in centre for those who engage in 'antisocial public space behaviours' – prostitution – stoke resentment among the white working-class residents, who believe they are losing out. Tensions mount after the murder, apparently racially motivated, of a young white man and soon boil over into riots.

The questions posed by Edgar about the relationship between government policy and community relations are even more timely after the events in London on July 7 and 21. He believes that in the debate about multiculturalism provoked by the bombings, there needs to be a recognition of previous policy failings.

'A lot of people said about the Northern riots that one of the causes was segregation, and the word “self” was then plonked on the front of that. So it seems important to remind ourselves that the initial segregation was often imposed by deliberate and conscious acts, not only by local authority housing departments but by estate agents,' Edgar says.

It is clear he feels that the responsibility for finding solutions to the problems associated with integration is being placed firmly on immigrant communities.

Paul Bhattacharjee, who plays Riaz, says this mistake on the part of those in authority comes through as the story unfolds. 'When we talk about “the Muslim community”, it's rubbish – we don't talk about 'the Christian community”. In the course of the play, Riaz has to examine himself as to what he really thinks, but the same also applies to the other [white] characters.'

Edgar illustrates this with the character of Frank, a Labour councillor who resigns from the party to represent the white working class that he says has been overlooked. Frank is cast in the mould of a BNP leader, and the warning Edgar is trying to convey seems clear. Unless politicians and officials in central and local government recognise that there are genuine causes for discontent, correct previous mistakes and find solutions to current problems, those who feel dispossessed will be attracted to extremism.

Emma Fielding, the actor playing Alex, told PF that the need to accept personal responsibility and the rejection of glib answers to difficult questions is the central theme of the play. 'It's about taking personal responsibility, in whatever form that takes, and having a bit of curiosity, asking the really difficult questions that are usually swept under the carpet with the soundbite, with the New Labour-speak.'

Edgar agrees, and believes the essential first step in that process is a vigorous and open debate. But he is concerned that the 'vibrant, active public forums' that should exist for that debate have been weakened over the past 20 years, and he lists local democracy among the casualties.

'All the institutions are in trouble: the political parties, the newspapers, factual TV, trade unions, local government, the political process as a whole,' he laments. He sees the recent marked resurgence in political theatre – the recent dramatisations of the Bloody Sunday and Hutton inquiries, the clutch of plays dealing with the Iraq war, to name just a few – as a reaction to these weakened institutions.

Playing with fire is an attempt to kickstart the debate and reinvigorate those institutions. But it is also a gripping story. As David Troughton, who plays council leader George, says: 'The play has got all of life in there, it is just couched in this very claustrophobic world of a council. I just hope people don't think, “Oh God, it's a play about local government”.'

If they do, they will be missing out.

Playing with Fire runs from September 12 until October 22 in the Olivier theatre as part of the National Theatre's £10 Travelex season

All the world's a stage — a short history of political plays

Justifying war (2003)
One of the most successful of the series of tribunal plays that have been staged by the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London. The script for this example of 'verbatim drama 'was culled from the transcripts of hundreds of hours of evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, which examined the lead up to the Iraq war.

The permanent way (2003)
David Hare's play depicted the events surrounding the privatisation of the railways and the succession of fatal crashes that followed. It was based on hours of interviews with bereaved families, survivors, managers for Railtrack and the private contractors, and railway workers, and was hailed by critics as 'a vitally necessary piece of theatre'.

Guantanamo (2004) )
Another example of verbatim drama, this play by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo draws upon letters from camp detainees, interviews with their families and lawyers to dramatise the 'legal black hole' that the prisoners occupy.

Stuff happens (2004) )
David Hare also wrote this acclaimed play about the invasion of Iraq, whose title is drawn from a famous quote by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in response to the looting of Baghdad. The play was widely praised for its even-handed, sober retracing of the path to war.

Bloody Sunday (2005) )
Another of the Tricycle's acclaimed tribunal plays, which have all been scripted by Richard Norton-Taylor and directed by Nicholas Kent. The Saville Inquiry into the killing of 13 Catholics by the British army in Derry in 1972 provided the material for an evening of 'incendiary theatre'.

The UN inspector (2005) )
David Farr's updating of Nicolai Gogol's nineteenth-century satire, The government Inspector, opened at London's National Theatre earlier this year. Underpinning the comedy were some trenchant criticisms of the United Nations' apparent inability to fulfil its responsibilities.