Chalk Farm by Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin, directed by Neil Bettles, enjoyed its U.S. Premiere at 59E59 Theaters from May 21 through June 8 as a part of the theater’s Brits Off Broadway series. Chalk Farm is the first notable play to explore the London riots of August 2011 in sections of East, West and North London, spreading to Manchester and other parts of the UK. In the play the import of the London riots is revealed through the viewpoints of a mother and son. The playwrights have configured these characterizations to dramatize themes which continue to resonate almost three years later.
The events of August 2011 were precipitated when police shot a black youth under suspicious circumstances. The incident sparked an unexpected response. Unemployed youth (average age 22 in London), and bored, feral kids (some aged 11), roamed the streets in gangs, then attacked like locusts until they were driven off, fled or were arrested. During the outrage hooded youths spread fear. They terrorized in nightmare scenarios of looting, burning and violence.
The mayhem began in Tottenham (around Chalk Farm estates), then leaped to other parts of London and elsewhere. Over 11,000 arrests and a massive air and ground police response quelled the chaos. Sociologists, politicians, media pundits and academics attempted to make sense of the rioting in the “prosperous” nation. Many saw it as the culture devouring itself; others blamed lack of parental care and discipline, still others an ill-equipped police force and initially weak response by law enforcement.
In Chalk Farm Hurley and Taudevin slice through the rhetoric and sociopolitical cant and touch us with a heartfelt story of a representative family impacted by the rioting. It is through our empathy with them that we gradually understand that the events have their roots in a complex situation involving a failure of many interlocking systems: political, social, economic, personal, cultural, familial.
The protagonists, single mother Maggie (a fine Julia Taudevin) and her 14-year-old son Jamie (an equally excellent Thomas Dennis), exemplify the lower middle classes. Like all caring parents Maggie seeks to bring up Jamie in safety. She gives him love and instills hope that he will be someone in life. She feels that by moving him to a better place, Chalk Farm, he will have opportunities he wouldn’t have in their former community. The playwrights use symbolism to reveal the themes about achieving success: From their windows, Jamie and Maggie can see the beauty of London and the opportunity it presents. Often Jamie sneaks up to the rooftop where he meditates on his dreams and feels like the king of a “great estate.”
The playwrights have portrayed figures who are all too tragically real in Western culture; they have been written off as insignificant, their struggles to economically “make it” forgotten. As wealthy parents do, Maggie worries about her son’s eating right, and is protective about where he goes, what he does and who he hangs out with. These nurturing impulses transcend economic class.
Likewise, excitement and the thrill of lawbreaking have a powerful allure for youth like Jamie; youthful thrill-seeking also transcends economic class. In basic emotions the wealthy and the poor are alike. However, when wealthy young people are arrested for destroying property for the “fun of it” their parents’ money will answer the law and they will get off lightly. This is not the case for the poor and lower middle class, and this difference, explored by the playwrights, explains why the London riots occurred and why they may occur again.
Underclass youth like Jamie and his friends may riot for the “fun of it,” like those youth who have means. But a multiplicity of stronger factors propel Jamie to the inevitability of an uprising. There is unequal justice, little social and economic opportunity, and a tremendous wealth gap that will never be bridged. For lower-class unemployed youths, rioting and looting express a need to strike back in revenge at a cultural system that judges them as inferior and nullifies their identity with hopelessness.
The double jeopardy is that by striking out, they end up in an additional hell of their own making. Because they suffer a more severe punishment than the wealthy ever would, they are discouraged from changing the social order except by difficult and arduous means they do not understand and that are rigged against them. Jamie and his friends do not even know to consider this as an option
As Jamie implies, when the frustration and despair increase beyond what can be tolerated, the double jeopardy no longer stops them. Venting rage in a violent spree is worth any attendant risks because unconsciously, self-destruction feels better than feelings of nonexistence. They have not been taught, nor do they understand or have the intellectual tools, to organize peaceful protests for the long haul. Violence offers immediate gratification and gives them a sense of purpose however “twisted.”
In their confessions about their experiences, their relationship to each other and the impact of the events of August 6, it is clear that Jamie and Maggie don’t understand why they behave as they do. They lack self-knowledge and have note been educated to see how they have allowed the impact of complex forces to shape their lives. However, as they relate their experiences, the playwrights give us clues; we see glimpses of how the issues of class, economics and culture foment the characters’ behaviors.
We hear individually first from Jamie, then from Maggie, and sometimes their interactions highlight conflicts that worsen because of their difference in perspective. Both are fervent in their attempts to justify their actions. We empathize and accept their accounts. As the play moves toward the finish and examines the aftermath of the rioting, the suspense builds. Maggie’s love for Jamie prompts her to take recourse in an action which Jamie little suspects. She intends to keep Jamie safe even though he is steeped in a culture in which he has little voice, power or significance and in which he is psychically at grave risk.
For Jamie his mom’s love is a stranglehold; he prefers the influence of friends to help him define his reality and future. With friends he feels he has power and control in a culture that thwarts his existence and nullifies his ability to make meaningful contributions.
The playwrights have cleverly constructed characters who are fighting to establish significance and value in their own lives. The irony is that their struggles don’t matter to the culture, the political, social and economic structures, though they should. Jamie’s and Maggie’s significance and value are only determined monetarily in their being consumers, or in being malcontents who would steal/destroy/harm the culture’s economic viability.
Mother and son are pawns and cannot find their way out of this morass, let alone change it. Jamie can only strike out and seemingly “have fun” destroying himself. Maggie can only love him through it and hope for the best. For both there is no real answer, no viable intervention. The playwrights imply the larger theme that when a family like this is at risk, the nation as a whole is jeopardized; the blind leaders lead the blind like Jamie and Maggie, and all fall in the ditch.
By the conclusion the poignancy of this realization hits us as Maggie and Jamie blunder emotionally through their last testimonies about Chalk Farm, the riots and the history books. To a great extent, even though we may not live a Chalk Farm existence or suffer the oppression of a Chalk Farm life, the truths this family represents apply to us. For few are in the elite ruling class whose wealth and political influence determines the declining fate of nations.