“I find it ironic that in the Information Age people know so little”: Playwright Ed Edwards discusses The Political History of Smack and Crack
Based in Manchester, Ed Edwards has written extensively for television and radio, including TV dramas Brookside, The Bill and Holby City, and five plays for BBC Radio 4. Also a college lecturer, he teaches Theatre and Creative Writing at the University of Bolton.
Edwards’s riveting work The Political History of Smack and Crack, a finalist in the 2016 Theatre 503 Playwriting Award, is on at Soho Theatre until 22nd September.
Hello Ed, great to speak with you. You are clearly passionate about your belief in social justice and the relationship between the political culture and drug epidemics. Does this play serve primarily to awaken social consciousness?
I suppose so, yes, but as a theatre person, I also worry a lot about entertaining and moving an audience. Without that, frankly it doesn’t matter whether there’s stuff in it about social justice; only the over-cultivated could like it, and I want lots of people to see it, or where is the social justice? So yes, awaken consciousness, but have a good night out too! (To paraphrase the late, great John McGrath.)
As a recovering addict yourself, did this writing process provide catharsis for you?
It certainly made me cry when I realised what was going to happen at the end, so yes, in that sense there is a catharsis. But I’m part of a 12-step fellowship for recovering addicts so I can get all my emotional knots unwound there. The catharsis here for me is lashing out at the political system at a time when politics is part of the ether again in a meaningful way. I’m not optimistic re political outcomes at the present time – particularly not in the West – but it does feel that at least there is some real anger that might, just might, lead to at least a decent battle of ideas.
Was Thatcherism the principal cause of the 1980’s Heroin pandemic in the UK in your view?
It was undoubtedly one of the major contributors, if you mean by Thatcherism neoliberal economics (NE). NE ploughed and fertilised the ground on which the seeds of the pandemic were sown.
I think the point I make in the play and the accompanying essay in the play script is: on the one hand, at the international level, it’s well documented that the British and US governments equipped and provided political cover for the international drug dealers. At home, I think that when the drugs swamped and pacified the inner city communities and then the defeated coal fields at a time when the Irish situation was critical and there were massive uprisings in all the major cities of England, while revolutions were brewing all over the developing world, they must have at the very least felt very relieved. They certainly took very few steps to stop it at any significant level, choosing instead to harry individual users and small-scale dealers and use the law and order crisis to give the police vast new powers. And it’s documented that police forces all over Europe were complaining that a decision was made “at the highest level” not to bust the biggest dealers.
Would a world free of capitalism be the solution to society’s addiction crises? Is highlighting and abolishing corruption predominantly about eradicating certain political systems?
I personally believe there is a fairly obvious correlation between chronic individualism and rampant consumerism and addiction and other mental illnesses. But there exist all sorts of proof that real power in the hands of the people themselves makes gangsterism of the kind that gives birth to a genuine drug market virtually impossible.
Sorry to sound old-fashioned, but in my view, it’s about abolishing private ownership of the means of production, thus making capital/wealth serve humanity rather than humanity serving capital/wealth. Capitalism will always press down on humanity and ultimately cause wars as it tries desperately to cling to its profit margins – this is historical fact whether we like it or not. So when Larry Elliot, The Guardian economics correspondent, blithely declares that “capitalism can solve global warming” he has to ignore the fact that capitalist economics inevitably leads to unending war, and take all that destruction out of the equation as if it is an unfortunate accident. People like that make no meaningful connection between economics and politics and war. It’s so basic to a Marxist, but highly educated people don’t make the connection properly and seem to imagine war can be eradicated by applied reason, presumably by educated people like themselves.
Are there elements of yourself in your characters?
I’m afraid so. All the stories in the play are more or less true. But not all of them happened to me personally. It’s about transcribing my own experiences onto stories I’ve heard – as I’m in recovery myself. Having sat in meetings for years and knowing literally hundreds of recovering addicts, I’ve heard plenty of stories – as well as having a few of my own to throw into the mix.
Did you have particular criteria in mind in terms of casting?
Well, the actress Eve Steele helped invent the character of Mandy. She appears in various guises in our work together with Most Wanted. Halfway through the process, I asked her to write the first scene ‘cause I wanted to start with something slightly different.
So yes, she was always going to be Mandy. Neil changed at the last minute when our original Neil got a job in children’s TV. Bit of a contrast!
How did you formulate the idea of using two “neutral” narrators and why?
I find the strictures of naturalism stifling – I’m not good with watching naturalism, and sometimes when I see a set that looks like it’s going to be there for the whole play I get a claustrophobic feeling and want to run out of the theatre. I try to write theatre I’d want to see myself and I like the unexpected and the freedom of the storytelling device. I’d been unconsciously working towards it for a few years, and then wrote a piece for Octagon Bolton with a couple of actors being a pair of jeans and some boxer shorts talking about the characters who were wearing them, and loved the freedom to jump around. Basically, I’ve got ADD, so it’s part of that I suppose.
You have said: “I want the play to raise questions and make people angry and sad… to make them hate the system that can produce such a catastrophe. I hope audiences will experience thrills, spills and emotion, and enlightenment about the need for a revolution.” Can theatre change the world?
No, but theatre can create a sense of solidarity for those who seek it, and it can be a great source of propaganda (in the best sense). Theatre can connect us to each other and to history better than the bigger-budget mediums. I find it ironic that in the Information Age people know so little. And I believe that if you don’t have a real connection to history, it is virtually impossible to know who you really are as a person. Incidentally, drugs can fill that gap spectacularly well, for a time, until they turn on you.
Tell us about your use of humour.
I think it goes back to the entertainer in me, the kid juggling fire on a slack rope in a park in Huyton trying to stop the audience invading the stage to grab your gear; which I spent a big part of my twenties doing. Plus ADD makes you a natural clown.
Your director is the award-winning Cressida Brown. How would you describe your creative partnership?
Pretty amazing. She’s a force of nature who gets things done. I’m more of a hopeless dreamer. She listens and decides. She can be very decisive and sometimes it’s a good thing to let her get her own way, ‘cause she can always see when she’s wrong, but often she’s very right.
You have spoken about “overt and covert censorship by the arts elites in this country”. Does The Political History of Smack and Crack defy such restrictions?
I hope so! I think it packs a punch; I’ve been a bit surprised by how much people like it because of that, but I think a lot of people are feeling desperate and under attack and never feel like the truth is being spoken – and if it is, it’s often so blurred by nuance you can hardly understand it. I’ve never been more myself in a piece of theatre and it’s all pretty clear and undisguised and people seem to like it. I feared that thing where educated people say “we don’t like to be told what to think”. But I and Eve and Cress have worked hard to try and make the propaganda element a simple communication of facts – which seems to have precluded that reaction and allowed even those people to enjoy it.
As a teacher, do you see theatre as a potent medium for galvanising the youth? Should there be an increased effort to make theatre more attractive to younger audiences?
Yeah, but all you need for that accessibility really is some good characters, a good story, some good gags and some emotion – job done. Oh, and something interesting to say. That’s often the hard bit!
What inspires you besides your work and social activism?
I love listening to sports people talking, and frankly, I love talking with complete freedom, but there are only a few people in the world one can do that with. Luckily I have access to a few.
Might you have considered a career in politics – or another profession – had you not become a writer?
Only if there was a proper revolutionary movement, but that wouldn’t have been a career as such, that would have been a long jail sentence!
Do you have ambitions or plans for future projects you’d like to share?
I want to write about the history of gangsterism; more about the criminals in Manchester and how these people – though drawn from the same milieu as the Irish working class who were fighting the British – ended up as criminals with no purpose, wasting away in jails and crack dens. I want to write about the collusion between the British state and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that goes back decades and ultimately led to 7/7 and the Manchester bombing. I want to write a second half for this show which will take a more stand-up approach to the international history of the drug trade only touched on in the play itself: Mafia, French Connection, Gold Triangle, Vietnam war.
Thanks so much for your time.
Photo: The Other Richard
Watch the trailer for The Political History of Smack and Crack here: