CASE STUDY
Bringing the Story Home - Trojan Horse in Birmingham
22 Jan 2020
BY JULIA FARRINGTON
A scene from Trojan Horse - a play which dramatises the real-life story of a false claim that schools in Birmingham were radicalising children. Credit: The Other Richard
A scene from Trojan Horse - a play which dramatises the real-life story of a false claim that schools in Birmingham were radicalising children. Credit: The Other Richard

The story of the Trojan Horse Affair hit the national press in early 2014. “Hardline” Muslim teachers and governors were accused of plotting to take over the running of a cluster of Birmingham schools. Adapted from the real-life testimonies of those at the heart of the UK government’s inquiry, Lung Theatre investigates what really happened in this case. Originally developed with Leeds Playhouse, Trojan Horse, winner of an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award, the 75-minute verbatim play was created out of 200 hours of interviews and performed by a cast of five actors playing multiple roles. A simultaneous translation into Urdu was made available via headsets and a bilingual edition of the play is published by Oberon Books.

What made the play controversial?

The play Trojan Horse sets out to give voice to the people at the centre of the so-called Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, a scandal involving claims of an alleged conspiracy to introduce an Islamist or Salafist ethos into several schools in Birmingham, England, after a letter sent to the local council was leaked to the press. Allegations in the letter triggered an investigation by government inspectors, which found evidence of some of the directors and teachers of the schools holding homophobic and misogynistic views and of pupil segregation. A case was conducted against the school teachers, but eventually collapsed because of a mishandling of evidence by the prosecution.

Political advisor Nick Timothy, writing about the premiere of the play at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018, objected strongly to the play’s characterisation of events. Rather than accepting that Trojan Horse was a plot “by hardline Muslims to convert secular state schools into austere Islamic faith schools” the play puts forward the idea that it was a government campaign, motivated by “institutionalised racism”, that “demonised” Birmingham’s Muslim community”. Timothy calls this interpretation of events a “fiction that has been contradicted by countless investigations” and concludes his article by arguing that “any attempt to rewrite the history of the Trojan Horse, must not be allowed to succeed”.  

In their book Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Trojan Horse Affair, academics John Holmwood, who advises Lung Theatre on this production, and Theresa O’Toole argue that the TH affair was a “fabrication” on the part of the government and supported by some factions in the media used to justify the introduction of the Prevent Duty, which many believe has had a significant impact on freedom of expression in schools, especially with sizeable Muslim student population. As journalist Samira Shackle says in an article for The Guardian: “The documents alleging a conspiracy to Islamise Birmingham schools were debunked – but the story remains as divisive as ever.”

Art and censorship

This case study forms part of Index on Censorship’s work on art and censorship and explores in particular the challenges in mounting politically sensitive work, and work that relates to the experiences of traditionally marginalised communities.

The aim of this case study series is not to assess the artistic merits of an artwork — but rather to reflect on lessons learned by writers, venues, audiences — on how best to support the creation and production of challenging work.

Development of the play

Collaborative approach to script writing

Throughout this project the authors had long  debate with the teachers, pupils and governors whose testimonies drive the narrative of the play. It was clear that the play had to be as accessible to detractors — including members of parliament, those in the teaching profession and those engaged in counter-extremism work — as it was to people in Alum Rock, the Birmingham suburb where the schools were situated. The authors worked with the protagonists and script consultant Aisha Khan from Freedom Studios in Bradford for two years. 

Support at development stage

Gilly Rhodes, the new work producer at Leeds Playhouse supported the play from the outset. Woodhead and Monks said that she was the only person to believe in the show from the very beginning: “No one else wanted to take the risk.” Rhodes told Index she was “convinced by the rigour with which Lung approached the subject” and the theatre’s artistic development programme, Furnace, allowed them to work over an extended period. Rhodes witnessed how Monks, from Birmingham herself and Woodhead, a local artist, at first struggled to get the show into venues, but how, once it won an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and an Edinburgh First at the Fringe, venues started to take note.

Building relationships with political figures

Early on in the process, the authors interviewed Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, who was interested in the project as part of her campaign to raise awareness of Islamophobia in the Conservative party. Baroness Warsi agreed to host the play at the Houses of Parliament in March 2020, at the invitation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, which she chairs. Baroness Warsi also wrote the forward to the publication of the play script. The APPG and other Westminster MPs are a key target audience for the play allowing it to fulfil one of its goals: to speak truth directly to power.

Outreach work

A dedicated Engagement Manager, Mediha Ansari Khan, joined the team. Ansari Khan’s role was to build trust with the communities where she encountered suspicion about theatre in general and confusion in particular about what the the play was trying to achieve and why it had not been written by a British Muslim. In spite of these difficulties Ansari Khan was very positive about the engagement in the post-show question and answer sessions, which formed a key component of the outreach strategy for the play. “We have started a discourse with the Muslim community – the conversation has always been there but we are encouraging more people to talk about this,” Ansari Khan said. “A lot of people were very fearful about talking about terrorism and extremism and Prevent Duty – we are trying to remove some of the fear, that is the first step before any government level change – mobilising people to talk about it, to question their councillors and people in authority,” she told Index.

Supportive venue

Midland Arts Centre  – a leading UK arts venue – championed the play and defended the decision to bring the story back to Birmingham despite considerable pressure internally and externally to pull the play. The venue welcomed the writers and key protagonists into the space in the year leading up to the performance, so that by the time the play was performed, the protagonists had a strong sense of ownership in the building.1

Performing in Birmingham – ‘bringing the story home’

The performances in Birmingham were, according to co-author and director Matt Woodhead, “the whole point really. The debate had been so one-sided and the teachers and governors had not had the means to amplify their side of the story. Being able to stand up and say something uninterrupted in front of 220 people at the MAC was important.”

Post-show Q&As

Every show was followed by a question and answer session, giving the audience space and time to engage with the issues the play raised. This was an integral part of the how the tour was conceived.

Inviting protagonists to Q&A

Tahir Alam, the chair of governors of one who the schools involved in the TH scandal who was subsequently banned from involvement in schools, was one of many of those involved directly in the affair to attend the post-show discussions. He attended as many as he could around the country and all the post shows in Birmingham. He emphasised the importance of this: “When you see the real people, you are reminded it is not fictional,” he told Index.

Managing the Q&As

Critics of the play had, according to co-author Helen Monks, raised concerns about the Q&A session in particular because, she said, they argued the “audience would not be able to handle open debate”. The team put in place show-stop procedures — procedures for rapid and controlled interruption of a performance — for the cast and stage manager in case of hostility.  The Q&A host had methods of managing disrespectful or hostile speakers from the floor and the front of house team were all heavily briefed with how to deal with disruptive individuals. All went ahead without incident. Helen Monks said: “The Q&As felt like really safe-spaces even when people weren’t agreeing with each other.” 

Academic advisor to the play

John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, was an expert witness for the defence in the cases of professional misconduct brought against senior teachers and governors at Park View Educational Trust by the National College of Teaching and Leadership and co-author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Trojan Horse Affair. He has exhaustive knowledge of the affair and brought gravitas to the young company. He acted as an advisor to the play, reading early versions of the script, and went out on the autumn tour, speaking on all the post show Q&As.  

Questionnaires

These were handed out after every show. The feedback is being processed and analysed by the play’s outreach manager at time of writing.

Translation into Urdu

The play was available as a simultaneous translation on headsets at every performance on the tour as an essential offer to target audiences and there was significant audience take up. It was translated by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqui who wrote publicly about her concerns with the script. In their response, published here for the first time, the authors describe how their collaborative methodology ensured that the story was directed throughout by the people at the centre of the story.

1. AD/CEO of MAC, Debbie Kermode, told Index in an interview: “Trojan Horse was an important and meaningful play for us to support as it allowed an alternative perspective and voice to the community, and we took it on proudly and paid considerable attention to work we did around it. We invested our own funds to support the translation of the play into Urdu and the supported outreach work. We worked with residents in Alum Rock, families and ex-pupils who supported the play and the issues raised, which they felt passionate about sharing. We approached the Core Education Trust which in 2015 took over the running of the schools caught up in the Trojan Horse Affair, with a strong desire to build a partnership, however unfortunately for many reasons the school leadership resisted any engagement with us, and voiced serious concerns about MAC taking the play.”

What obstacles did the production encounter in Birmingham?

Pressure on venue to cancel the show

Adrian Packer, CEO and co-founder of Core Education Trust which in 2015 took over the running of some of the schools implicated in the Trojan Horse Affairs, contacted the MAC to express concerns about the play coming to Birmingham. According to AD/CEO of MAC, Debbie Kermode, the trust cited the need to keep the children in the schools safe and also raised the threat of protest from the parents. Members of the trust’s board of directors contacted MAC trustees and a trust board member accused Kermode of having an extremist agenda. “So it got quite personal and unpleasant,” she said. This allegation of pursuing an extremist agenda echoed political advisor Nick Timothy’s claim, that people who supported the play “[d]eliberate or not, left-wingers in the arts and media risk playing the extremists’ game.” Adrian Packer was approached for comment and an initial interview was cancelled. A new date for an interview has not been scheduled at time of writing (January 10). 

Partnership with the school

Kermode objected to the pressure she was being put under by the Core Education Trust, so it was suggested that she and Helen Monks meet with the headteacher of Rockwood Academy, formerly Park View — one of the schools at the centre of the TH Affair. Both Monks and Kermode said it was clear that the objective of this meeting was to persuade MAC not to do the play.  Many of the reasons given were to do with the safety of the children currently in the school. “People still talk about the TH Affair; it’s still there and bubbling away,” said Monks. “We took that as a sign that the play should be put on so these issues can be confronted and the school could be seen to be listening. We suggested that we do the play in collaboration with the school and they could frame it as they would like to, an opportunity to acknowledge what had happened. But they were not keen to do that and put it down to not having enough time or resources.”

Accusations of lack of balance

Political adviser Nick Timothy in the article cited above claimed “Senior education figures have told me that, when their accounts did not suit the play’s narrative, their interviews with Monks and Woodhead were terminated early”. This claim was then repeated by critic Dominic Cavendish in his review of the play. When asked to respond to this, Monks and Woodhead said they did not terminate or cancel any interviews. “The only person we can think this claim could have come from was a headteacher from a school that was outside the group of schools we were focusing on who we met very late in the process of writing the play. We made it clear before meeting that we were giving voice to the teachers and governors accused in the plot. After making him aware of this, he chose to cancel the interview on the day. When we were next in Birmingham (for our very final interviews) we re-approached him and he did not respond.” 

Media interest withdrawn

BBC West Midlands Today responded positively to the play coming to Birmingham and planned a TV news feature. Interviews were arranged with cast and creative team, but cancelled at the last minute. They said a more urgent item had come up, even though the team were in Birmingham for several days. 

Lack of alternative perspectives in Q&A

The opportunity to have an open debate in Birmingham about the state of education in the city was not taken up. Invitations extended to Adrian Packer, Nick Timothy and other of the play’s detractors were not taken up. The council requested 10 free tickets to the performance at the MAC but did not show up. 

Community venue double booked

On the Monday before the Saturday performance, the team were told that the hall they had booked in Alum Rock four months previously had been double booked. An alternative venue — the community hall in the grounds of Rockwood Academy, formerly Parkview, one of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse Affair — was found at late notice. The change of venue was not announced in advance as it was only three minutes away from the previous venue, so the audience walked from one to the other on arrival. “Going back to Alum Rock for the performance was electrifying. The trauma was there, but having a guerrilla performance on the doorstep of the school was a surreal experience – the energy, the emotion and the unity in an intimate space. It was epic,” said Inam Malik – one of the teachers at the centre of the affair.

Police incident

Birmingham Parent Forum – a group linked to the LGBT protest — printed a leaflet advertising the performance at the community centre, independently of the play’s marketing strategy. Adrian Packer wrote to MAC’s Debbie Kermode, even though the community event was unrelated to the MAC performances, to say flyers had been distributed outside Rockwood Academy. Packer said he had alerted relevant local and national authorities and police were at the school. Four police officers came to the venue on Saturday evening at the start of the show, stayed a few minutes and left.

Audience response in Birmingham

The play attracted capacity crowds for four showings at the MAC, the largest South Asian audience ever recorded at the theatre, and the single performance in Alum Rock, also full to capacity, attracted a 90% South Asian audience. At the end of the show the teachers and governors came on stage and took a bow and invited people to stay for the Q&A.  “The show attracted four capacity audiences, and I think we could have filled it 10 times over, with the majority of the audience from South Asian heritage, who welcomed the opportunity to talk about it even if they didn’t all agree!”2

2. Debbie Kermode interviewed for this case study.

Summary

The performances of Trojan Horse in Birmingham demonstrate that it is possible to bring even the most highly controversial, politically sensitive subject matter successfully onto the stage. 

The stakes could not have been higher. As Tahir Alam said, the political and educational impact of Trojan Horse “will last for decades”. 

Many people felt that this made it too risky to bring the play to Birmingham. Nevertheless, the play was successfully and safely performed on home territory to capacity audiences. The reasons behind the successful production of challenging material are always complex, however it is possible to identify some clear strands of best practice that helped to contribute to this success:

  • the care taken with the script
  • effective community engagement work
  • the making available of simultaneous translations of the performances;
  • the curation of after-show discussions; 
  • support from established cultural organisations
  • political and academic champions

Turnout surpassed expectations and more performances had to be added in at the MAC. The best testimony to the fact that so-called hard to reach audiences will come out when what is on offer is relevant and important enough, is that another theatre in Birmingham has expressed interest in bringing the play back for a longer run, later in the year to meet the demand for tickets. A return trip to Birmingham also offers another opportunity to engage with alternative voices in the post show Q&A.

The play is a very strong example of free speech in action through theatre: it provides a platform to challenge a mainstream narrative, and through the Q&A, extends an invitation to people with very little access to public debate, to discuss the issues raised. This, and the ultimate goal of calling power to account, illustrate the important role theatre can have within civil society. 

However, there is another free speech angle on this production that is worth considering and that is about authorship and who is free to tell which stories.

From our work on Homegrown, Believers are but Brothers and in our research on the impact of Prevent on artistic freedom of expression more generally, we have heard repeatedly how difficult it is for Muslim artists to critique the state/establishment. The fact that the creative team for Trojan Horse was non-Muslim begs the question, would it have been possible for a Muslim artist to make this play? The play’s translator, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqui, voiced her concern about the white lens in her reflections on translating the play and wondered “what this play would have looked like if it had been made by a Pakistani Muslim from Birmingham”. She also asks the all-important question for the arts sector: “When will room be made in the industry for that play?”

Julia Farrington

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