Jonathan Hall reviews Lung Theatre Company’s production Trojan Horse which was chosen to re-open the Leeds Playhouse after its renovation.
Leeds Playhouse Website
‘Trojan Horse’, by the verbatim theatre company Lung Theatre, is the opening show at the shiny multi-million pound refurbished Leeds Playhouse; the play left me feeling engaged, challenged and questioning the world around me- exactly how I would expect to feel after a strong piece of theatre. The drama tells the full- as opposed to media reported- story of the 2014 ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, its investigation and enquiry where a number of Birmingham Schools were suspected and accused of peddling extremist Muslim ideologies to their students. The catalyst for these suspicions was a highly suspect letter claiming certain schools were setting out to groom their pupils into certain beliefs, throwing a sinister light onto what were arguably understandable clashes of cultures. This letter just happened to chime in perfectly with the views of Michael Gove set out in is his 2006 book on the perceived ‘Islamic Threat’; at the time of the letter said Mr Gove was Minister of Education.
When he became aware of what was happening there followed a brutal series of OFSTED inspections to find evidence to concur with these increasingly wild speculations; the subsequent enquiry and media storm was not a little reminiscent of the McCarthy witch-hunts against so-called communists in 1950’s America and has added a disturbing chapter to the phenomenon that is ‘Fake news’. It’s a complex, twisting story, one which could easily lose its audience, especially when you take into account that the play itself was woven together from over 200 documents and interviews.
To tell such a labyrinthine story derived from so many different sources is no mean feat however writers Helen Monk and Matt Woodhead have managed the task brilliantly creating a sharp, questioning script that never loses momentum. It’s energetically realised by an ensemble cast of five who, under Woodhead’s committed direction, make imaginative use of back projection and five school desks to create the various landscapes of the narrative. The cast were one and all great, bringing to life people from both sides of the story caught up in the turbulence; stand out to me were Mustafa Chaudhry as a driven school governor and Gurkiran Kaur as a conflicted student- both in their own ways victims of events.
Perhaps troublingly the production couldn’t be more pertinent. I saw the show on the day when the Prime Minister seemed to be normalizing some highly suspect British terms for a withdrawal from the EU, and when our school concerned by its own imminent OFSTED inspection was urgently pushing its own curriculum of Great British values. When the leader of the country appears to be normalising the language of anger, and when eight-year-olds are being taught to chant words like ‘democracy’ and ‘tolerance’ you know there’s something seriously amiss with the nation.
Any opening show at a new or re-launched venue is more than a stand-alone piece of theatre; it’s a statement of that venue’s intent and purpose. When I see contemporary concerns explored in such an exhilarating and energetic way by a play that has been developed in very that theatre, you know it’s a place that’s important and relevant in these troubling times.