“Good writing and good theatre allow issues to be explored without spoon-feeding ideas”
In the year ending March 2019, 5,738 referrals were made to the UK’s anti-radicalisation programme, Prevent. The most common source of referrals was Education and one in ten were deemed worthy of further action through the de-radicalisation programme known as Channel. Finborough Theatre’s writer on attachment, Joe Marsh explores bias, community and the education system in Althea Theatre’s production of The Glass Will Shatter at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham.
Told through a series of flashbacks, the play follows Rebecca (Josephine Arden), a middle-class, white, neurotic and former teacher as she attempts to overcome her recurring nightmares by addressing their source: a confrontation she had had with former pupil Amina (Naima Swaleh)- a second-generation Somali and aspiring rapper. Between the two sits the steadying presence of Jamilah (Alma Eno), now school principal, who has agreed to meet with Rebecca for a catch-up.
Although it gets off to a rocky start; seemingly due to an inherent problem with the setup – a series of stilted conversations in a coffee shop between the emotionally closed Rebecca and Jamilah, who haven’t met for years – “Are you sure you don’t want a coffee?”. Marsh has nonetheless written a beautiful and witty play that highlights the tragic combination of systematised programmes such as Prevent and the inherent bias and insecurities of the individuals encouraged to enact them.
Once properly underway, Director Lilac Yosiphon builds the pace cycling through the series of flashbacks with swift changes to the moveable set punctuated by short movement sequences. All of which was supplemented by Will Monks’ lighting design which employed striking laser projections through heavy stage smoke. The large glass window (that one feels must shatter, Chekovesque) at times captured and contained all of that smoke in a way reminiscent of the design for Debbie Tucker Green’s Ear for Eye.
Naima Swaleh provides an especially watchable performance as Amina; playing the confident street-kid foil to Rebecca’s neuroticism. Jamilah completed the triumvirate as the wise head between the two and showing that emotional intelligence counts for much in education, as it does in life. All of which builds to a satisfying and emotional denouement when Rebecca finally gets face to face with her (now long-since graduated) tormentor.
Good writing and good theatre allow issues to be explored without spoon-feeding ideas. I left the theatre with a very clear set of conclusions (both tragic and self-confronting) to the problems raised. However, such is the complexity and at times a nebulous subject, it’s entirely possible for another viewer to leave holding a different set of sympathies. That, above all, is much to the production’s credit.
“an essential piece of theatre that tells a story that deserved to be told long ago”
The Trojan Horse inquiry began as a counter-terrorism operation and ended as a symbol for modern Britain’s barely concealed Islamophobia. Spurred on by an anonymous letter, which detailed conservative Muslims plotting to “take over” Birmingham schools, education secretary Michael Gove took action, launching not only inquiries, but a sense of hysteria that was fed by a biased media.
Five years later it is widely accepted that this letter was a hoax, the planned takeover fictional, and the schools – far from breeding terrorism – were quite the opposite of extremist. But what of the teachers, suspended and under surveillance? What about the students who were caught in the crossfire? Birmingham City Council, disgruntled head teachers, worried parents, school governors – what do their lives look like now?
Based on 200 hours of interviews, LUNG Theatre answer these questions by asking us to relive Trojan Horse from the inside. What begins as a tale of redemption – a failing school turned around, teachers inspiring and students prospering – quickly devolves into a nightmare that is hard to endure and even harder to pull back from.
Five actors bring a fascinating group of characters to life. Rashid (Mustafa Chaudhry), who left school without any GCSEs, teaches Urdu at Park View, his life having been changed by school governor Tahir Alam (Qasim Mahmood). Alam is credited with having turned local schools around, allowing students like Farah (Gurkiran Kaur) to have hope that they can pursue success outside of Alum Rock. Former head teacher Elaine Buckley (Keshini Misha) is less than complimentary of Alam. Buckley claims she was forced out of her old school for refusing to bend to the will of parents and governors. She raises her concerns with Jess (Komal Amin) at Birmingham City Council; the anonymous letter arrives on Jess’ desk days later, giving Elaine the ammunition she needs. Though they are undoubtedly amalgamations of many people, these feel like whole characters, rather than representations of a certain viewpoint. This is thanks to the purposeful performances of the actors, particularly Mahmood’s unflinchingly honest Rashid and Misha’s vitriolic Buckley.
Once the letter leaks, the community crumbles under the weight of the controversy. School is no longer enjoyable: the students are subject to government surveillance and head counts of hijab wearers. Rashid is not an inspirational teacher, but a dangerous facilitator, and Tahir Alam his sinister leader. Hinge-top desks are wheeled around the stage to create classrooms and courtrooms, until we have no choice but to associate the two.
It is impossible not to watch and feel anger, above all else. Despite the inevitable conclusion, this is not a play where the audience leaves limp, their heads bowed with sadness. This is not a play that asks us to observe its content, clap politely, and go home. This is a play that demands action.
Trojan Horse is an essential piece of theatre that tells a story that deserved to be told long ago. Here I do my bit to transmit this story, to raise my small voice and ask that everyone that reads this go and see it. And, when the play goes to the Houses of Parliament in January 2020, I ask that everyone at Westminster – from the Prime Minister to the lowest government employee – do themselves the favour of watching and learning, not only about the power of the arts to tell stories, but from the mistakes of the past decade, in the hope that they will not be repeated in the next.