Evening Standard: Roy Williams interview

Posted on 28 October 2014.

Posted in: Main Stage

Roy Williams’s new play, Wildefire, for Hampstead Theatre, focuses on the way the Met works in the current climate of mistrust — being a police officer looks like the worst job you could do right now, he tells Johanna Thomas-Corr.

Roy Williams’s latest play resounds with the authentic language of the nick: it turns out that the term “slag” didn’t go out with The Sweeney but is used in London police stations today to refer to an offender. A “chis” is a covert human intelligence source and “claret” means blood.

They are terms he learnt in the course of research for Wildefire, which previews at Hampstead Theatre from next week, and explores the current climate of mistrust that surrounds the Metropolitan Police. “It’s not me throwing darts at them,” he says over coffee, during a break from rehearsals. “The time just seemed right to put them in the spotlight.”

The play opens with Sir Robert Peel reciting the nine principles of law enforcement, written in 1829, which set out the moral framework for a police force “dependent upon public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect”.

Williams has written about the police before but his new play arrives at a time when, it’s fair to say, the Met is at a low point, perhaps unsurprisingly when you list the PR disasters of recent years, from the early inaction of the police during the 2011 riots, to “Plebgate”, accusations of poor judgment over the phone-hacking scandal, the smear campaign against Stephen Lawrence’s family and the cover-up over the death of Ian Tomlinson. “When I read Peel’s principles, I thought, ‘If only’,” sighs Williams.

The prolific playwright, 46, grew up in west London in the Eighties, “one of those black kids stopped enough times, or seeing that happen, for no reason” that he assumed that “all coppers were bastards”, until they proved otherwise. Williams found the police treated him respectfully when, in 2007, he contacted them about a violently racist piece of hate mail. But it was the 2011 riots when his attitude towards them really changed. As the violence spread, he says, he began to feel “some shade of sympathy”. “Everyone now agrees that the riots mutated into something else; it became opportunists taking advantage to loot. The politicians were using the police as their scapegoat, saying, ‘deal with it’. The police were just lackeys — no one was interested in their assessment of the situation.”

Conflict and racial tension have been central to Williams’s work to date — his hits include Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002), about the rising pressure between black and white England football fans, and the boxing drama Sucker Punch (2010) — while two plays have featured police characters. Fallout (2003) was inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor, while Days of Significance (2007) saw binge-drinking squaddies running amok in a market town the night before departing for Iraq. More recently, he has transplanted the action of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone to a Londonesque gangland nightclub (the production is currently touring the UK and reaches Stratford East in February next year).

Williams’s characters are often spitting with anger and frustration but their dialogue is so acute that you feel you’re eavesdropping on something urgent — “the stuff you’d rather not know”, as one critic put it. (Williams has been known to sit in the back top deck of buses noting down conversation to ensure that his slang is up-to-date). For all the simmering injustice, however, there’s always a hard-worn humanity at the heart of his plays, a possibility of redemption.

The title of the new play, Wildefire, is also the nickname of his lead character, Gail Wilde (played by Lorraine Stanley), an extension, Williams says, of a female officer he wrote in Days of Significance, which, like this one, was also directed by Maria Aberg. He is struck by how policewomen have to endure sexual scrutiny from both the public and their male colleagues. Thankfully, it’s no longer fair game for a male officer to put hands down blouses (“the policewomen I’ve met say, ‘I would just break his arm if that happened’,”) but they do “have to put up with all sorts of crap, all of the time. They have more to prove. It’s still seen as a job for men.”

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