Leeds Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre
Oct 3 – 5, 2019
Stories. We all love them, don’t we? Until, of course, we find ourselves on the wrong side of a narrative. Until we find ourselves no longer playing the hero and we’re suddenly portrayed as the antagonist, the wrongdoer, the terrorist. It’s easy to forget the power that stories hold. They appeal to people’s hearts, but can just as easily stoke hatred, incite violence. We find ourselves at a point in history where the power of a strong narrative is perhaps more evident than ever – fake news this, propaganda that. Stories can lead us astray, they can destroy lives. We need to be wary of a story.
Trojan Horse, written by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead is a story that seeks to redress a balance that has been thrown way off kilter by a sickeningly popular and prevailing narrative: Islamophobic sentiment fuelled by stories of extremism, radicalisation and terrorism. Produced by Barnsley’s Lung Theatre, Trojan Horse won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award in 2018 at the Edinburgh Fringe. Tonight, it kicks off a short UK tour at the newly refurbished Leeds Playhouse and the packed auditorium were ready to hear this story.
It centres around the real life 2014 Trojan Horse scandal that began with an anonymous letter that made accusations of radicalisation within several Birmingham schools, a letter that spoke of head teachers being bullied out of their schools to further a Muslim plot to force religion and install extremist views in the minds of school children. The play follows events in and around the schools of the Park View Educational Trust and the ensuing investigations by Ofsted, Birmingham City Council and Peter Clarke’s government investigation.
Monks’ and Woodhead’s play draws from extensive interviews, public documents and speeches and is broken into small segments that whisk us from council meetings to classrooms to the children’s homes. It serves up each piece of dramatised evidence to the audience, who is allowed to act as the jury in the court case, allowing us to draw our own conclusions, conclusions far removed from the hysterical narrative as it was presented in the mainstream media. Each segment further drives the plot forwards, presenting contrasting sides of the story – from the paranoid headmaster convinced of the extremist plot, to the earnest teacher whose main concern was transform his pupils’ lives for the better. Such an approach could come across as fragmented, but the strength of the writing and the relatable and open hearted performances pull it all together into a cohesive, compelling and eye opening whole.
Gurkiran Kaur as Farah delivers a relatable central character as she opens the play in the her family home, bickering with her father over whether she should keep her head covered out of the house. She then talks of her teacher who turns a blind eye when she promptly removes her head scarf at school. Mustafa Chaudhry as teacher Rashid and Qasim Mahmood as Tahir, head of the educational trust deliver memorably ardent performances – these are men who are fighting to improve failing schools, not just failing in terms of Ofsted results, but also failing their pupils who have grown restless and directionless. They are also supported by Komal Amin and Keshini Misha, who rapidly switch between characters – from school pupils, to headmasters and councillors to fill out the play with a larger cast of central characters and background figures. Their energy forms the vital heart of Trojan Horse.
And what energy. The stark set is dominated by school desks mounted on casters, which the cast enthusiastically whirl about the stage in what are almost dance sequences. They continuously rearrange the desks as they transition from scene to scene, from location to location. They open and then slam their desks shut as they change outfits to switch from character to character. The constant movement gives the play a real sense of trajectory as events spiral out of control. Subtle sound design underpins the flow of the action – low quiet drones swell into affecting sweeps at key emotional points; each scene separated from the next with bursts of breezy uptempo music that draw us ever onward to the play’s conclusion. Lights stutter and flash as the characters find themselves embroiled in press interviews. Intrusive microphones surround the cast as they are interrogated and accused, their private lives thrust into the public eye, their every word and action repurposed to suit someone else’s political ambitions, to suit another man’s view of the world.
As far as Trojan Horse is concerned, that man is Michael Gove. The play draws from elements of his book, Celsius 7/7, as in turn the Trojan Horse letter drew heavily from this book. The back of the set is a school blackboard, onto which quotes are projected that introduce and sum up each scene and snapshot. They present an alternative narrative in which the scandal was seized upon as an opportunity to reinforce the narrative of Gove’s investigation into terrorism. It presents the anger and sadness of the pupils and the teachers who fell victim to this very political repurposing of their lives, it depicts the schools that had struggled – yet crucially – succeeded in improving the lives of the children in the local communities. It the shows these school brought right back round to failure despite their every effort.
The audience reacted to the play’s energy energy in kind – cheering and applauding, nodding in emphatic agreement with the characters on stage, fully engaged with this version of event, welcoming its message. Keep an eye on this tour, this is an important story and long may LUNG continue to tell such stories.