Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks
Ellie Claughton, Gilly Roche, LUNG and Leeds Playhouse
The Lowry, Salford
The political upheaval that began with the Brexit vote in 2016 and shows no sign of ceasing has rather overshadowed the events depicted in Trojan Horse. This is a pity as, not only is Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks’s verbatim play engrossing, recent protests by Birmingham parents who withdrew their children from classes intended to challenge homophobia, suggests there might be the possibility of a sequel.
In 2014, an anonymous letter described an alleged conspiracy to introduce an Islamist ethos into several schools in Birmingham and speculated about extending the process into other cities. Relentless media and political pressure followed resulting in investigations that found evidence of extremism and, in the process, destroyed the careers of teachers, the reputations of school governors and the educational performance of schools. However, in view of the political and media frenzy, it is hard to be sure if the investigations were impartial; besides, some people regard the letter as a hoax and a crusading Secretary of State for Education may have had his own agenda.
Authors Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks, who based their play on 200 hours of interviews, seem to have taken Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as their model. The play describes people caught up in a nightmarish situation of rumours spiralling out of control and having massively disproportionate consequences. An example of the over-the-top political reaction is that the Head of Counter Terrorism, rather than an educationalist, undertakes the investigations into the schools. There is the strong sense of those in control using any means necessary to secure the result they deem acceptable regardless of the impact upon the community.
Trojan Horse admirably refuses to idealise any of the characters caught up in the chaos. A teacher makes derogatory remarks about women on the Internet; a chair of governors sees nothing wrong in exerting pressure on headteachers he regards as under-performing. A headteacher refusing a request for an on-site prayer room, on the grounds she is running a school not a Mosque, reflects the nastiness underlying nostalgia for simpler times.
Woodhead and Monks do a remarkable job of communicating complex details in a concise manner. They express very well the underlying tension between headteachers and governors that may have contributed to the crisis. In one scene, a governor criticises headteachers he regards as complacent and sees nothing wrong with taking steps to have them dismissed while a teacher describes being hounded out of her school by protesting parents and pupils. However, although both sides of the argument are set out, the tone of the play is hardly impartial. The authors regard the events in Trojan Horse as a populist witch-hunt and Keshini Misha, as the whistle-blower, is portrayed as vindictive and self-pitying.
Verbatim theatre, by its nature, is episodic, jumping from one event to another. In his role as director, Woodhead makes this potential weakness a strength conveying the chaotic and panicked series of events as the five members of the cast rush around the stage pushing school desks to form classrooms and courtrooms.
Woodhead creates an ominous mood of encroaching paranoia. Remixed news reports provide an aggressive musical backing and Will Monk’s lighting is dark and oppressive with bursts of strobe lighting giving a delirious confused edge to scenes of media harassment.
Trojan Horse is a disturbing play showing how easily events can get out of control and the extent to which political powers will go to achieve their objectives however dubious. It raises doubts as to whether it will ever be possible to achieve an integrated society.
Reviewer: David Cunningham