It’s a drizzly afternoon in October, and underneath the curved-glass ceiling of an outdated, quietly imposing Edwardian library constructing in Homerton, a bunch of youngsters and twentysomethings are careering round a small rehearsal room, jostling and banging and shouting and squawking to a bruising mixture of kicks and snares. It’s not instantly clear what’s happening till director Dominic Garfield sidles over to supply on indirect rationalization. “This one’s a bit techy,” he says, eyes centered on the unfolding chaos.
The group are rehearsing for The UK Drill Challenge, a brand new theatre present that blends appearing, video projections and unique music to unpick the difficult relationship between music, criminality and the advanced causes of youth violence. It’s a few weeks earlier than curtain-up and issues are slowly coming collectively. “I’m not nervous … but,” says Garfield. A neon rainbow of Publish-it notes arcs on the wall behind him, slowly solidifying right into a story that has been within the works since 2019, when his HighRise manufacturing firm bagged the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Belief award and an opportunity to carry out on the Barbican’s Pit theatre.
The plot follows two younger males caught within the spiral of youth violence. One is a budding rapper ensnared within the legal justice system whose story is a fictionalised collation of greater than 20 actual court docket circumstances, the opposite is a bereaved brother campaigning for better understanding in regards to the causes of youth violence. He’s primarily based loosely on one of many younger individuals who options in author and youth employee Ciaran Thapar’s 2021 guide Lower Brief.
The UK Drill Challenge breaks new floor in its forensic portrayal of occasions which have turn out to be widespread in UK courtrooms, detailing the way in which through which rap lyrics transfer from youngsters’ smartphones to jury binders as prosecutors try to attract a hyperlink between songs and stabbings. “It’s loopy,” says 19-year-old Ché Gordon, who performs the bereaved character, V. “It’s like one thing that will occur in America.” He’s not fallacious: the apply of utilizing rap lyrics as proof is an strategy UK prosecutors seem to have lifted from the US, the place stars equivalent to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys are campaigning towards it.
In 2019, Erik Nielson and Andrea L Dennis revealed Rap on Trial, an exposé of the prevalence of lyrics in US court docket circumstances that painted an image of the criminalisation of Black artists. At the moment within the UK, such conversations nonetheless largely revolved round censorship – particularly the powers exercised by the Metropolitan police to have supposedly threatening drill music movies faraway from YouTube. Garfield, whose theatre productions are grounded in youth work, noticed this censorship as one thing he and his workforce might discover on stage. Then got here Covid, lockdowns and shuttered theatres.
In the mean time, UK drill has turn out to be a fixture of the charts and the courtrooms throughout the nation – pursued as a money cow by labels and scapegoated for rising youth violence by prosecutors. In 2019 the Met launched the £4.8m House Workplace-funded Challenge Alpha, which employs officers to observe drill movies and request takedowns of movies they deem dangerous. Earlier this yr, the Guardian noticed Met paperwork that described Challenge Alpha as “amassing youngsters’s private knowledge” and “profiling on a big scale”. The identical workforce is now repeatedly contributing skilled witness experiences to hyperlink music movies with violence in court docket circumstances, and extra just lately has begun training other officers in these supplies.
Final yr, the BBC together with researchers from the College of Manchester and London College of Economics produced an analysis of 70 UK trials, largely from the earlier two years, through which rap lyrics had been entered as proof, steadily as a part of joint-enterprise prosecutions and sometimes in circumstances missing forensic proof. In January, the Crown Prosecution Service introduced it will evaluation its steerage on the usage of drill music as proof in legal trials. Within the meantime, excessive ranges of youth violence continued unabated. Final yr, London recorded its worst ever teenage murder toll.
Whereas making ready his Barbican manufacturing, Garfield knew that specializing in censorship alone wouldn’t be sufficient. He threw himself into court docket experiences and shared testimony, working with younger individuals, artists and researchers to start mapping out a story. The present is devised, that means the forged and creatives toss concepts round, then labored by means of them till the beats of a scene emerge. Rehearsals are filmed, traces written collaboratively, tweaked, polished and rehearsed once more. It’s a setup that fits the fast-changing subject material. “This dialog is ongoing,” Garfield says, citing the latest demise of Brixton drill rapper Perm. “Issues are continuously occurring, and it’s nonetheless pressing – however perhaps much less within the mainstream.”
On the present’s sold-out opening evening on 3 November, the viewers is a mixture of children in Hoodrich tracksuits and high-tops, and middle-class adults carrying tote luggage. The group mills by means of a pre-show exhibition, soundtracked by a DJ banging out tracks by the likes of M1llionz and Tion Wayne, that tugs at among the threads that the present will unravel extra absolutely: youth alternative, media protection, policing.
Opening with a scene from a video shoot, the story quickly strikes into the chaotic arrest scene from rehearsals. The present makes use of tight sketches and cutaways to exhibit how a slurry of racism, gutted youth providers, policing and social media kind the pipeline to youth violence. Occasions are juxtaposed, typically brutally, to specific the complexity of younger individuals’s on a regular basis existence – particularly these rising up in precarious circumstances or in shut proximity to violence. Ominous characters in white masks symbolize the faceless energy of the state, whether or not by means of direct motion or the shortage of it, on the characters’ lives. And it’s advised at dizzying velocity – which, you shortly realise, is the purpose.
The heavy subject material is pricked with moments of comedian reduction. PCs Bars and Railings – primarily based on actual officers, of their phrases if not their dance strikes – are a pastiche double act referencing every part from Legislation & Order to The Invoice.
Scenes are damaged up by dispatches from a corny YouTube “hood reporter” whose gossipy accounts of gang feuds find yourself in proof folders. A jail lifer breaks the fourth wall, utilizing his kettle to whip up a lemon cheesecake in a banged-up model of Prepared Regular Cook dinner. Sneering judges and politicians produce options to violent crime that embrace promoting blunted knives or becoming kitchen implements with GPS trackers earlier than scurrying off to vote with their wallets.
This undercurrent of humour serves as a stark, playful reminder that in lots of of those circumstances, the defendants are youngsters feeling their method by means of a posh and punitive world. In a single scene, the youngsters goof round with a VR headset. “I wished to attempt to carry them right down to youngsters,” says Garfield, “Pull the innocence out, the playfulness. As a result of it’s actually essential to see that.”
The implicit message, to the adults within the room, is that seeing each occasion and motion by means of a criminological lens – as Bars and Railings do – is a folly that ignores the nuance and barrelling emotion of teenage life.
Aaron Niles, AKA 20-year-old rapper Nilez, who performs the incarcerated TJ, says the devised strategy has made the present “extra private, as there’s items of you in each scene”. It has left him reflecting on his personal position as an artist. “I used to be aware of the censorship factor to a sure extent, however to the purpose at which your lyrics can be utilized to completely criminalise you to a jury? I didn’t actually perceive the depths of it. It opened my eyes to issues I wasn’t conscious of. It’s good to discover a tradition that lots of people attempt to ignore, or demonise.”
On the right track to promoting out their full London run, the forged hope to take the present and its message on the highway. “I don’t simply need younger individuals fascinated about this,” says Garfield. “I would like the middle-class viewers to go house and look it up too.”
After the efficiency has reached its arresting climax, and the younger forged exhale in a bunch hug earlier than taking a bow, one viewers member within the entrance row leans over to their good friend. “It’s going to take me some time to course of that,” she says. Job completed? The proof means that it’s simply starting.