The Echo Chamber
Peter Campling and Gbolahan Obisesan
From 14 August 2016 to 28 August 2016
Review by Keith Mckenna
In 2015, Ofsted introduced a new grade descriptor to assess the success or failure of schools. It required "Leaders’ work to protect pupils from radicalisation and extremism".
A teacher interviewed for a teaching post in London this year was told by a member of the panel that Ofsted would ask him how many young people he had reported to be at risk of radicalisation.
In this way, Ofsted, along with the Prevent policy and various speeches from government, adds to the pressure on schools to deal with so called "Islamic extremism".
Trimaran Productions steps into this situation with their play The Echo Chamber, which they claim has been performed to over 25,000 secondary school students.
It follows the fictional efforts of a theatre company to create a play about the dangers of Internet extremism, centring on the separate stories of two young people and a married couple in Syria.
The central story of the character Cali (Princess McDonnough) leaving her Whitechapel school to marry an IS fighter in Syria is shown naturalistically from her early religious" conversations online to her final return to be questioned by United Kingdom security.
The second story concerns someone described as "naive Steve" who falls under the online influence of Hugh, (Joe Cushley) a strange right wing nationalist in Wales.
In a besieged section of the Syrian town of Aleppo, the Shiite Muslim Kadija (Kathryn Hamilton-Hall) who is married to an American takes grave risks taking pictures of what is happening.
Intersecting these stories are brief video examples of the kind of video propaganda seen online and scenes that illustrate the violence of Boko Haram, the Taliban and the Norwegian Anders Breivik.
Only the Whitechapel story has any dramatic tension. When the performers play the actors, they adopt an exaggerated cartoonish behaviour. There are also occasions when inexplicably two clowns rush out to shake hands with members of the audience and a final bewildering scene in which an edition of Britain's Got Talent has a woman in a burca who says she wears it to get through security singing at the same time as a large, older, white racist is rapping out a song.
This brings me to a more important problem with the play. It simply reinforces popular prejudices. The bizarre, fairly harmless, negative depiction of a burca does chime with popular suspicions about the burca and that can make it more difficult for women to be seen in public in a burca. It certainly won't help any young person wanting to wear a burca in a school where it is banned.
However, the show's central flaw is its crude acceptance that young people are drawn to deadly ideas because of the Internet. There is only one small speech that suggests that the reason young people might prefer such ideas is because of the injustice they have seen including the persecution of Palestinians and the bombing of Iraq.
But we hear nothing of the increasing institutionalised racism against Muslims, the daily barrage of negative mainstream media reports about Muslims and the evidence of growing levels of physical attacks against Muslims in this country.
Sadly, this play encourages children to accept uncritically some dominant myths and stereotypes. It does nothing to explain why a child growing up in England might be drawn to certain dangerous ideas.