Writer: Scott Devon
Director: Lawrence Evans
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
When Both Side Surrender is the first full-length piece staged at Manchester‘s newest theatre venue 53two. Manchester’s Fringe scene is renowned nationally not only for its quality and variety, but also for its ambition. And with typical swagger, this play is not about a fight, or even an affray, but about a whole inner city riot. It comes complete with abandoned vehicles, sheet metal walls covered in graffiti and its own riot police. When Both Side Surrender is determined to make its mark and it provides a potent mix in a style that writer Scott Devon describes as, ‘Shakespeare meets A Clockwork Orange’.
Devon was inspired to write the play by the dissonance he saw in the reporting of the August 2011 riots, which turned from reporting on a violent protest in response to the killing of a young black man into a national moral panic about amoral youth looting shops for the luxuries that a credit crunched UK had denied them. In Devon’s view, the Police went from an oppressive force who could be seen as, at least partly, responsible for the social unease that caused the riots, to the reliable guardians of the people and their property. There are lots of competing and complementary analyses of the riots, and Devon’s writing is careful to present a complex and layered view of the Police and their actions. We see the riots both through lens of an unnamed Senior Officer and a mother and her two sons, the Winter family. There are losses on all sides and if the play is imitating Shakespeare, then it is definitely a tragedy.
The language and style of the play is extraordinary. Devon uses the linguistic and stylistic form of Elizabethan drama for all his characters. while blank verse may play easily in the mouth of a Chief Constable, there is something bizarre and quite mesmerising in having the rioting underclass speak in this way. It has an equalising effect and forces the audience to let go of the stereotyping that a hoodie and grey trackies might immediately otherwise engender. Devon’s device may not make the rioters all noble, but it does make them heard in a way that no other drama has. At times the soliloquies are too many and too long, militating against the dramatic pace of the piece, but this level of poetic writing is a considerable achievement.
The cast are great. Andrew Readman provides a moving characterisation of the Senior Officer, wretchedly caught between his desire for revenge and his moral code of justice. Simon Naylor and Darren Jeffries as the Winter brothers are totally convincing. John Tueart, James Lewis, Sonia Ibrahim and Matt Hall do excellent work as a kind of chorus, jumping between playing police officers and rioters with aplomb. Lawrence Evans makes the experience of the chaos of civil disturbance as vividly alive as possible. The turbulence of what the characters experience is intercut with the constant live media presence that brings the order of their ascribed meaning to events. Devon suggests that a conscious game of distortion and manipulation is played out between the police and the press in an analysis that will be familiar, especially after the Hillsborough enquiry.
When Both Side Surrender is unlike anything else on offer in Manchester, in a good way. Its experiments in language and form may not be to everyone’s taste, but they are bold, clever and justify their innovation by the level of meaning that they unlock.
Runs until 26 November 2016 | Image: Contributed