When the newly refurbished and renamed Leeds Playhouse flung its shiny doors open for the first time, its maiden production was always going to be closely scrutinised (in addition to the quality of the furnishings).
Teaming up with Lung Theatre company (a company describing itself as one that ‘broadens horizons and investigates modern Britain’) for its debut show was most definitely a statement of what Leeds Playhouse wants to represent.
‘Trojan Horse’, written by Helen Monk and Matt Woodhead and co-developed by Leeds Playhouse, is not based on the famous Greek story but instead refers to the 2014 ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, a highly publicised scandal involving alleged claims that a number of individuals were trying to introduce extreme Islamic ethos into several schools in Birmingham.
The play strives to bring focus to the damaging effect the affair had on both the local community in Birmingham and the Muslim British community throughout the UK. It uses verbatim interviews to share the stories of those at the heart of the matter, showing the effect that the negative publicity and propaganda had on their lives. The play questions the motivations of key decisions taken, the apparent corruption of the evidence against the schools and the adverse role played by the media.
Winner of the Fringe First Award in 2018, this play has everything you would expect from an award winning show. Firstly, the actors are phenomenal. The five member ensemble took command of the stage and created a fast paced, honest performance. They effortless multi-roled throughout the show, with very short scene changes driving the action forward, the use of real media sound clips highlighting the reality of the scandal.
They believably portrayed the naivety of younger teenage students, whilst showing the gravity and professionalism of older characters. Each action was well-timed and flowing, although the constant moving of exam desks, whilst to some extent creative at the beginning, did become repetitive, reminding me of a somewhat average school A Level production. The individual monologues (the verbatim interviews), however, were the moments that really drew the audience in, making us feel compassion and understanding towards the characters. Even though we might not personally know them, or share their religion, ethnicity or gender, there was a feeling of a connection with them: that we, underneath it all, are just human beings who deserve the same treatment and respect. Gurkiran Kaur, in particular, engrossed me each time she spoke. Her sincere, natural way of speaking made me trust every word and feeling she expressed; a truly beautiful performance to watch.
Secondly, the script is stunning. The stories are compelling, the characters believable, and the circular timeline gives the audience a new perspective. The audience leaves feeling absolutely appalled over the treatment of the characters victimised by this scandal, as well as abhorrence in the system. If I wasn’t already appalled by the current state of politics in our society, I most definitely would be after this.
However, with political theatre, especially politic theatre based on true, recent events, there comes a certain moral obligation. If told logically and realistically, an audience will more often than not believe most things they hear. But how do we know these events really happened? How do we know the statements have not been manipulated to bring forward biased views? How can we trust that experts and professionals have helped create this very damning retelling? Luckily, the audience was offered a Question and Answer session after the show with a writer, director, cast member, professional and local community leader, in which many of these questions were answered. For instance, we were told that over 200 hours of interviews were recorded for this play, that the dialogue in the production is almost entirely verbatim (although some voices have been fused to create a single character, a style common with verbatim playwrights like Robin Soans). Two entire years of research and writing were conducted, scrutinising thousands of pages of court transcripts and formal documents. For me, this was what made the play truly powerful: knowing this information, knowing the research and facts that had gone into it, knowing that many of the key people involved had worked very closely with the writers to ensure that truth was at the heart of it.
My main concern is that this Question and Answer was optional, at the end of the show. I wholeheartedly believe that in a play this controversial, the Question and Answer should be made part of the show, so the audience feels compelled to discuss, question and argue what they have heard from those telling it. At the least, much of the information we were given in the Q & A should have been included in a programme, other than a piece of photocopied paper with the names of the cast on it. This mechanism for explaining research and stating the evidence for the facts made in a challenging play like this is essential, especially if you are arguing that transparency within our systems is fundamental to our society.
This is a play that makes the audience think, and it’s the kind of theatre, in my opinion, that more of us should be wanting to see. I believe we need to start questioning our politicians more about what they are doing and making them accountable for their decisions: and this play has proven that theatre is a remarkable tool for doing this; for being part of the action. If you can’t see it whilst it’s in Leeds then it is touring at another 14 venues around the UK in the upcoming months and it will definitely be worth the journey.
Ultimately, The Leeds Playhouse has made a strong statement in this production, with the impression that it wants to be progressive, it wants to be educational and it wants to be for the people. Ensure you are part of this new adventure.
You can see at first hand how the Playhouse has been transformed as there’s an opening week-end 11 – 13 October.
Photographs by The Other Richard provided by Leeds Playhouse.