Trojan Horse – Review – Leeds Playhouse

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By Eve Luddington, October 2019

‘Wow!’ was my first word on entering the new Leeds Playhouse. It’s totally unrecognisable from the theatre complex I used to visit and, with low ceilings and light colours, seems much more intimate and friendly. The acoustics are better, too. But do allow plenty of time, on your first visit, to find your theatre. On its opening night, even the welcoming Front of House staff – of whom there were many – were rather confused about the building’s layout. However attractive, it’s a veritable warren of spaces and corridors. I arrived in very good time with my companion, who has walking difficulties. There are two cafes and two bars but it took us more than 20 minutes to find the only one serving coffee. Once we all know the simplest way to get from A to B, we’ll appreciate the new design, and the fact that there are lifts at either end of the building but, on opening night, everyone was on a journey of discovery.

While the new Playhouse itself didn’t seem quite ready for audiences that night, the Courtyard, enlarged, comfortable and stylish, certainly is. So, too, is its first production, Trojan Horse. It’s one of the most effective pieces of documentary theatre I’ve seen in 40-plus years of theatre-going.

I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in politics, theatre and/or today’s social climate: that should include several millions!

trojan horse review leeds playhouse october 2019 drama

“Presents a strong viewpoint simply”

A ‘Trojan horse’ is, of course, someone or something intending to undermine or overthrow while seeming entirely innocuous – and ‘Trojan Horse’ was the heading on a letter supposedly written by an Islamist to a co-conspirator, outlining a five-step strategy for the radicalisation of schools. It named specific schools in Birmingham where, it claimed, the method had already achieved results. The letter was leaked to the media in 2014, and ‘The Trojan Horse’ scandal erupted, with serious and long-term consequences.

From then until now, I had believed that Birmingham schools, and particularly Park View High School, were a hotbed of hardline Islamism until the Department for Education, headed by Michael Gove, took action. Leeds Playhouse and LUNG, a verbatim theatre company founded in Barnsley in 2012, have used the words and reports of the time to dispel that belief and to present a compelling argument of their own. Professor John Holmwood, one of the expert witnesses in the professional misconduct cases that arose from a government inquiry, was Academic Advisor for this production.

The set is a huge blackboard, five desks and chairs. The five-strong cast wear school uniforms and sometimes don a jacket, hijab, specs or scarf to indicate a role-change. Captions appear on the blackboard to show the main thrust of each short episode. In the tradition of the best documentary theatre, Trojan Horse presents a strong viewpoint simply, accessibly and to great effect. It focuses on Park View High School, in Birmingham.

trojan horse review leeds playhouse october 2019

“Devastating effect”

The wit and humour of the script, by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, doesn’t conceal its fearless and angry indictment of several establishment figures, Michael Gove in particular. It’s fast-flowing, compelling and very impressive. My one quibble is that it uses a pupil’s lesbianism to highlight a Government minister’s hypocrisy and to suggest that Muslims are more tolerant than is generally perceived. Several Birmingham schools are currently embroiled in a dispute about the ‘teaching’ of LGBTQ to primary pupils. Perhaps now is not the time to use homosexuality as a side issue to make more general assertions, however true. The LGBTQ dispute deserves an in-depth treatment of its own.

The first blackboard caption and speech arrest the audience immediately, beginning with the words, ‘I am a terrorist’. 75 minutes later, that speech is repeated by the same character. By this, the end of the performance, we understand the context and identify with Rashid, a teacher at Park View High. More than that, we have understood the devastating effect the scandal had on him, on the pupils and on the former chair of governors at Park View. Drama humanises issues and this one does so very well, making some startling facts speak to our hearts and minds.

trojan horse review leeds playhouse cast

“Contentious, powerful”

While I had known of the scandal and the alleged Islamic radicalisation in Birmingham schools I was, until Trojan Horse, unaware that the allegations had been debunked. I make no apology for mentioning here, some of the facts given in the production. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one in a mixed audience to be enlightened:

  • The ‘Trojan horse’ letter was unsigned and undated: it was accepted as a hoax, even by those responsible for the two inquiries that Michael Gove ordered into the Islamic radicalisation of 21 Birmingham schools
  • Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, appointed Peter Clarke, a former Head of Terrorism with the Metropolitan Police, to lead one of the inquiries: he had no educational expertise at all
  • Peter Clarke’s report initially concluded that there was ‘no evidence of Islamisisation.’ It was re-worded to conclude there was no evidence of violent Islamisisation’: that version was leaked to the Press one day after Michael Gove left the Department for Education
  • The teachers charged with misconduct were given one month, instead of the usual 16, to prepare their case. After 2.5 years, the cases against them collapsed when it was revealed that the prosecution had withheld evidence
  • Park View High’s pupils were 98% Muslim. When Tahir Alam became the school’s chair of governors in 1997, the percentage of them gaining grades A to C at GCSE was 4%. Before the scandal that percentage had risen to 76% and the school was rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, the schools inspection body run by the government. After he felt compelled to resign, it fell to 43%

Was it remarkable foresight on Michael Gove’s part that his book, Celsius 7/7, about the roots of Islamist terrorism, published in 2006, contained a chapter headed ‘Trojan Horse’? This production suggests not: one of the characters asserts that Michael Gove, rather than Islamic extremists, is the true ‘Trojan horse’ in this case. It’s contentious, powerful stuff.

trojan horse review leeds playhouse october 2019 cast

“Challenged my perceptions”

Direction, by Matt Woodhead, is slick. The actors take on different roles but, rightly, don’t attempt in-depth characterisation. The job of all these creatives is, first and foremost, to communicate their argument. They do so with compelling directness. That this review is about the story they tell and not their theatre techniques, is testament to the effectiveness of their production.

There’s a Q&A after the performance with people involved in the scandal. On this occasion, it included Bradford MP, Naz Shah. She made the point that, in this piece, ‘the prevailing narrative (about Islamism) has been challenged in an accessible way.’ It certainly challenged my perceptions. As Shah said, this play is important at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise, not just in the UK but across America and Europe, and when people in government seem to be inciting it. It’s necessary and urgent too.

Well done, Leeds Playhouse, for opening your new theatre with such a challenging, provocative and important production, in the knowledge that the first night would be attended by a very mixed audience of VIPs and those who helped design and build the new space as well as regular theatre-goers. You gave theatre the chance, for once, to ‘preach’ to the unconverted.

images: The Other Richard


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