Playing with fire
David Edgar's new play on riots and race relations makes a surprisingly lively drama out of local government reform.
Playing with Fire, David Edgar’s new, impressively-scaled drama about New Labour and the politics of multiculturalism is intriguing in that it is a political play that views politics almost exclusively from the point of view of government.
The headlining aspect of the play is its treatment of racial tensions leading to rioting in the fictional northern English town of Wyverdale, clearly picking up from events in Oldham, Burnley and similar towns in recent years. The play touches on the vexed question of whether it is possible to have political solidarity in an avowedly multicultural society. But Edgar’s real passion goes into indicting New Labour’s local government reform. This less glamorous aspect of contemporary politics is at the heart of the play.
Alex Clifton (that’s a she, as the council leader finds out with a gaffe) is a civil servant cum New Labour troubleshooter sent by the government to sort out Wyverdale’s crisis-ridden and unmistakably ‘Old Labour’ council. While the council now operates the new-style cabinet system insisted on by Whitehall, it has conspicuously failed to adopt the modern, business-like culture that is supposed to go with it. Instead, Alex marches into the messy debris left by the old system when Thatcherism finished off traditional local democracy and councils lost what credibility they ever had. Wyverdale Council is ramshackle and incompetent: asked to explain why they don’t have a proper website, the leader thinks he’s scoring a point against the superficiality of New Labour when he explains that they’ve been busy fitting central heating to their housing stock. It later turns out that the council failed to do a survey, and will have to demolish many of the houses in a few years.
Inevitably, though, Alex’s reforms will involve cuts as well as efficiency. And ethnic division in Wyverdale makes the allocation of resources a potentially explosive issue. The ‘playing with fire’ metaphor of the title is more familiar from international relations, in which the actions of Great Powers often have dangerous unintended consequences. Fittingly, then, Edgar borrows other metaphors directly from international relations: the New Labour apparatchiks debate whether to treat Wyverdale’s troublesome local authority as Poland (persuade the existing leadership to toe the line) or Czechoslovakia (send in the tanks). That this casts the government in the role of Stalinist Russia is of course telling, but it is also convincing as a Labour in-joke.
The final pay-off here brings the metaphor back to New Labour itself: after the riot, someone suggests that Wyverdale is neither Poland nor Czechoslovakia but Kosovo, bombed from a great height by Blair’s administration, with disastrous consequences on the ground. The play is not quite set ‘on the ground’, however.
Much of the action takes place in and around meetings. The stage becomes a committee room or a hotel function room populated by a large cast of councillors and hangers-on. But there is little room for the people of Wyverdale, except when Alex goes for a manicure to kill time and is confronted with the unsavoury opinions of the manicurist. In a telling scene at the hotel, one councillor protests that the meeting is supposed to be private and there are people there who shouldn’t be. The interlopers protest in return that they are ‘the general public’; it turns out they are members of the far right Britannia party (an obvious cipher for the BNP). But it is questionable whether they are any less legitimate as representatives of the public than the councillors themselves.
New Labour’s preference for directly elected mayors is less about overcoming this problem than leapfrogging councils in an effort to streamline local government: this famously backfired in real life with the elections of a monkey-man in Hartlepool and Ken Livingstone in London. In Wyverdale, too, things do not go to plan, even after the riot. To Edgar’s credit, there is nothing simplistic about the political complexions of those involved. British politics no longer has clearly identifiable positions that might lend themselves to stereotype, and accordingly developments in the play are not at all predictable.
It is perhaps this unpredictability that makes ‘playing with fire’ so dangerous. The lesson Alex learns is that far from becoming more business-like and coolly efficient, government has to get involved, to care, and have a feel for the local community. In the play’s one predictable plot development, she does just that. The romantic subplot, and various other biographical nuances in the characters, give the play more depth than it might otherwise have. But the overwhelming sense of the political class living in a world of its own, is hardly an invention of the play.
The political malaise captured by Edgar is unlikely to be overcome even by the most enlightened and compassionate civil servant. Nor is the answer likely to appear from stage left, stage right, or parachuted in from above. The missing actors are more likely to be found in the audience.
Playing with Fire is showing at the National Theatre until 22 October 2005.
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