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Nigel Williams - Class Enemy

When Nigel Williams wrote Class Enemy in 1978, the South London class-room it was set in was brimming with revolution. Punk rock had invested every lower-stream urchin with a street-wise suss that was quite prepared to stand up to the authorities, with violence if necessary. But there was a tribal warfare at play as well, between punks and Teds, then the revived mods and proto-hippy rockers, and all the little sub-cultural youth movements that provided what social workers called ‘The Kids’ with an off-the-peg sense of belonging. What we now know as multi-culturalism was a world away from the racial integration we recognise today, and as each kept to their own, hand-me-down prejudices made for a tense stand-off.

Class Enemy was one of those plays that every teenager in the late 1970s knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. This might have had something to do with the presence of a young Phil Daniels, at the time on the verge of becoming every casting director’s juvenile delinquent of choice, in the lead role. Or it could have been something to do with the cheap thrill of seeing swear-words on the page. Either way, like Barrie Keeffe’s similarly classroom-set Gotcha, which had appeared two years earlier, Class Enemy captured a generation about to explode.

Thirty years on, what might have ended up as a state-of-the-nation period piece has been dragged bang up to date by Bosnian theatre director Haris Pasovic, whose adaptation of Williams’ play for the tellingly named East west Theatre Company re-imagines Williams’ original for a very contemporary war zone a long way from an all boys comprehensive school in South London.

“To be honest it’s not that unusual,” Williams says of Pasovic’s take on his play. “I get approached by people wanting to do Class Enemy all the time. It’s just been done in Brazil, and there was an all female production as well. The English theatre is a very strange institution, so it doesn’t get done much here, but it’s very nice that Johnny Foreigner has come good with it.”

He’s joking, of course, but given that Pasovic’s Sarajevo-set production has a far more explicit tribal breakdown, the arrest of former Croatian president Radovan Karovic a few weeks after we speak gives Class Enemy an extra edge. In a mixed class, the threat of violence is more pronounced, the consequences even more dire than it was during the grim days of Britain’s pre Thatcherite industrial decline. Williams may have been on the verge of thirty when he wrote Class Enemy, but as with many of his generation, he was always partial to a spot of part-time armchair rebellion.

“I loved punk when it came along,” says a man who turned 60 earlier this year. “It was the same when I was at university in 1968, even though I was a bit of a swot. A lot of rules got broken. It was a very revolutionary time in British society. The trade unions were about to take on the government, and there was a feel of real violence in the air.”

A German television version of Class Enemy was directed by Peter Stein in 1983. Following its original production, Williams continued to divide his time between writing for stage and TV, as well as concentrating on novels. His children’s TV drama, Johnny Jarvis tapped into a similar classroom zeitgeist as Class Enemy, and an adaptation of William Golding’s novel, Lord Of The Flies, followed. More recently, Williams penned the TV film, Elizabeth 1, starring Helen Mirren in the title role. It’s Class Enemy, however, that still captures a global imagination.

“There are times I sort of resent it,” Williams admits, “but after thirty years, it’s a play that still offends some people, and seems to have this strange counter-life across the world, so it must be doing something right.”

Class Enemy, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Wed-Sat, 8pm

The Herald, August 19th 2008

ends

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