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The Domestic Extremists

We’re all ‘domestic extremists’ now

Peter Arkell reviews a play about “domestic extremism”, a new and undefined concept dreamt up by the state to thwart the activities of protestors, journalists, lawyers and many others.

In their eagerness to keep tabs on anyone who might be dreaming of a better world or indeed anyone who might want to expose the injustices of the current one, the police have invoked the new and undefined concept of “domestic extremism”. This ugly and sinister term, with a kind of implied association to terrorism, was commonly used by police in 2009 when they attempted to quell supposedly criminal activities at peaceful protests, especially the student protests at that time.

A dedicated domestic extremist unit was originally set up and run by the unaccountable Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Then it was transferred to the Metropolitan Police and called the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU).
Although there is no legal definition of domestic extremism, the police claim that it “relates to the activity of groups or individuals who commit or plan serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint” .

The Network for Police Monitoring says that NDEDIU continues to harvest data on people “using a definition it has created itself, that it can interpret as broadly as it wishes, that it can apply to situations that most people would not recognise as ‘serious crime’ and that involves no public scrutiny.” But who decides what counts as serious criminal activity and who exactly is now classified as a “domestic extremist”?

The journalists union, the NUJ, is taking legal action against the Home Office and the Met after several of its members have become the targets of systematic monitoring of their movements and behaviour. The union is worried that the unit is targeting journalists who are simply doing their job properly, and is seeking to have the files destroyed and to expose the activities of NDEDIU.

The Domestic Extremists
Michael Roy Andrews (Toby), Sadie Parsons (Lizzie, Roz, Tabitha, Youth, Judge, Prime Minister and Martha), Jonathan Leinmuller (Christopher) and Nicola Dalziel (Chloe)

This might seem like an unlikely subject for a stage play, but playwright Dan Davies has come up with a challenging and unsettling work about how the security services and the media deal with dissent, protest and civil disobedience.

It tells the story of Chloe, a young and ambitious TV director who pitches her idea of a documentary film about the marketisation of higher education to Christopher, once a brilliant producer but now languishing in obscurity as the commissioner for Daytime Lifestyle. She envisages an idealistic film that centres on the world-wide spate of student protests against the attempts to privatise the universities and to introduce the market into higher education.

He at first treats her and her ideas with boredom and disdain, but gradually sees an opportunity for himself as well as the film. But he demands changes, which Chloe reluctantly agrees, until the new script is ready to be presented to Toby, head of Factual. His is a cynical character, confident of his own judgement and brilliance, and demands further changes until the original concept is almost unrecognisable. “Revealing the truth?” he asks at one point rhetorically, “an insane ambition. Nobody cares.”

It is the slow corruption of the original idea for the documentary and with it of Chloe herself that provides the dramatic heart of the play. Toby wants to reduce it down to a confrontation between a student leader fighting privatisation and the Secretary of State for Education and University Reform. “Trust your characters,” he says “two unstoppable forces on a collision course”. All Chloe can say, as she gets dragged along with it all, is “I’ve never seen it that way.”

Woven into the drama of Chloe’s moral surrender is the harsh world of mass protest, corporate influence, police dirty tricks and the trivialising of news. As the secret filming with the student activists gets underway, with, Chloe uncovers a police provocateur at work encouraging the students to set fire to buildings, causing confusion and chaos and destroying the credibility of the student leadership. “Filming undercover police undercover,” Christopher calls it. With echoes of the real recently-exposed world of undercover policing, this undercover agent has taken on the identity and name of a child who died 30 years ago.

Chloe also uncovers the fact that one of the big American private education companies, Hercules Education, which stands to profit from privatisation, is leaning on the government to alter the proposed new legislation to “liberate the universities from state control”. Through her friendship with the education minister, she also discovers that her latest draft of the bill has been amended to include Hercules’s proposals.

Ironically perhaps, in view of everything, Chloe has stumbled across a scoop, revealing the truth about police methods of controlling protests as well as the corporate influence over governments. This damning footage leads to panic measures from the state, the ensnaring of the film-makers by the domestic extremism unit, threats of injunctions to stop the film being shown, and denials all round by government. It also leads to the suicide of a government minister and the end of Christopher’s career.

The Domestic Extremists
A production drawing of the bank of TV screens
at the side of the stage

Set Design – Isobel Power Smith

The play has many of the attributes of a political thriller, and written another way it could have become one. But then it would have lost its immediacy and relevance to today’s reality and could have been dismissed as fantasy. As it stands, it is a realistic, credible, disturbing drama squarely placed in the tense political environment of today.

The play itself is tightly crafted, as is the direction by Ben Borowiecki, and the acting is excellent – Jonathan Leinmuller as Christopher, Nicola Dalziel as Chloe and Michael Roy Andrews plays Toby. Sadie Parsons takes on seven roles, most of them beamed to the audience in close-up from a live video camera, via a bank of TV screens at the side of the stage, a device that works extremely well.

The judge and the prime minister, through the TV screens, recite some familiar clichés in a damage-limitation exercise at the end of the play. The judge says there was “no compelling reason” for editing the film “in this way” and accuses the film-makers of imposing their own preconceived ideas onto the film. The prime minister rejects all the allegations, implies that the film-makers are operating outside UK law, and talks about “broken journalism”.

The play asks many crucial questions, none of them destined to become topics in the forthcoming general election, at least as far as the three main political parties are concerned. Is the mainstream media part of government? Why are the police collecting and storing all this information? Why are they targeting journalists? Who are the real extremists? Do we still live in a democracy? In fact, the kind of questions that people will be discussing at the upcoming Assemblies for Democracy.

20 February 2015

The Domestic Extremists, a play by Dan Davies, can be seen at the Space Theatre, on the Isle of Dogs, until Feb 28

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