Edinburgh Fringe 2018
‘Trojan Horse’ was a local story that hit the national press, accusing ‘hardline’ Muslim teachers and governors of plotting Muslim extremism in Birmingham schools. The play is adapted from interviews and real-life testimonies from those at the heart of the government enquiry and investigates what really happened. It is the story of a community torn apart by racial division, British Values and the culture of Prevent.
As we walk into the theatre, an Urdu exam is in progress and 5 students are writing with their backs to the audience. The urgency of the pulsating Bhangra sound-track contrasts with the silence of the classroom and foreshadows the discomforting story to come.
Set in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham, the play charts the background, process and aftermath of an enquiry into a reported Muslim ‘takeover’ of 3 schools (two secondary, one primary) in the city. We see it through the eyes and different perspectives of the main protagonists in one secondary school.
Five actors – 2 men and 3 women – variously play students, teachers, head teacher, local councillor, lawyer. The classroom setting acts effectively as itself – and doubles up flexibly as other kinds of room: courtroom, meeting room, interview room. The re-arranged desks contain the costumes for the neat scene changes and the written chalk notices on the blackboard provide the settings for the audience as the chronology of the story unfolds. But we never forget the traditional Victorian classroom setting of the Birmingham school with its bells, wooden floors and desks – and the devastating effect that this enquiry is having on the lives of young students (soon to leave school) and their teachers.
The writing is taut and fast-paced, using the stories and backgrounds of the individual characters to help the audience engage with and understand a complex, controversial and often inaccessible subject. Co-writers Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead have successfully adapted over 200 hours of interviews, along with public documents and testimony from public hearings, to create a fluent and coherent narrative of events. The characters have an authentic voice in both their relationships with each other and in the honesty of their direct address to the audience. The proficient use of local Birmingham accents and phrasing provides us with a further sense of location, and for audience members who know the city, there is an additional layer of recognition. The performances are very convincing and compelling, with actors ably switching between roles. We can empathise with the personal, social and ethical dilemmas of the main characters – torn between how they see themselves and how others see them – as they navigate circumstances spiralling beyond their control.
The soundtrack includes voice-overs of statements and speech extracts from familiar politicians – Gove, Cameron, May – so that while we are fully absorbed in the personal stories that are unfolding in front of us, we are alerted to the wider contemporary political context of growing Islamophobia and outside events taking place. When a student in the play reports that an OFSTED inspector was counting the number of female students in the classroom wearing headscarves, we are reminded of the recent pronouncements on the subject of the burqa by a prominent politician. The show makes a powerful and convincing critique of the Thatcherite legacy of the privatisation of education and the role of academies. It also identifies the hypocrisy of certain politicians at the time, in this local story that has had such ongoing national repercussions.
Playing to a packed house, the message of the play is uncompromising and shattering. The narrative builds to a shocking conclusion, which reprises some lines from the opening, and encapsulates the tragedy of the whole story. This is a necessary and urgent play that must be seen in Birmingham – and across the UK.