Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
This is the second piece of work we’ve seen by LUNG, the verbatim theatre company that works to ‘shine a light on political, social and economic issues in modern Britain using people’s actual words to tell their stories.’ Last year, Who Cares? – a heartbreaking play about Manchester’s young carers – succeeded in raising our awareness of the plight of 700,000 youngsters nationwide; tonight, Trojan Horse lifts the lid on a controversial news story we’d all but forgotten.
In 2013, an anonymous letter was sent to Birmingham city council, implying that there was a Muslim conspiracy to ‘Islamify’ state schools in Birmingham: a deliberate and concerted effort to force out non-Muslim staff and governors and implement a hard-line agenda. Clearly, such an allegation had to be investigated. Equally clearly, the investigation needed to be fair, objective and professional, as well as robust – and certainly free from political baggage.
Sadly, this was not the case. Park View’s OFSTED ranking went from Outstanding to Inadequate overnight. Teachers’ and head teachers’ careers were destroyed. The children – from one of the most deprived areas in Britain – emerged as collateral. An ideological war was being fought, and they were caught in the crossfire.
In this compelling drama by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, hundreds of hours of interviews are distilled into composite characters, representing teachers, governors, pupils, council workers and inspectors. While contemporary narratives focused on the accusers’ perspectives – with tabloids shrieking about compulsory prayers and segregation – Trojan Horse gives us a chance to hear voices from the other side, from those directly implicated and affected by the claims. And it’s a shocking story.
Some concerns, it seems, were justified. Even by his own words, Tahir Alam (Qasim Mahmood) seems to have misunderstood the remit and parameters of what a governor should do, taking credit for turning schools around and creating an aspirational culture. There’s no doubt that Park View was transformed – with an A*- C GCSE pass rate that leapt from 4% to 76% – but surely any accolades belong to the leadership team and staff; surely it’s their hard work and dedication that will have made the difference?
Other issues, however, were clearly fuelled by Islamophobia. In-class gender segregation, for example, was deemed to be a problem. But, as council worker Jess (Komal Amin) points out, no one was complaining about entirely separate schools attended by boys and girls in predominantly white catchment areas. It was claimed that the curriculum was being narrowed, with music and drama sidelined in favour of more academic subjects such as English and maths. The schools disputed this but, even if it were true, this was – ironically – in line with Michael Gove’s own plans: arts subjects have been systemically demoted in the state system over the last decade. To be clear, I truly believe both segregation and a lack of arts provision are wrong. But they’re not more wrong in Muslim schools than they are anywhere else.
Such is the power of this piece that, even here, I find myself focusing on the issues raised rather than reviewing the drama. But I suppose this points to its success. Yes, it’s well acted; yes, the direction is nimble and fluid. But the point, surely, is to let us hear from those who have been silenced, and to open our eyes to the agenda that shape the news we read.
Trojan Horse is currently on its second tour of the UK, which will culminate in a potentially cataclysmic performance in Westminster. I wonder if Gove will dare to attend?