Are censorship and self-censorship taking place in the UK right now?
Following Index’s work on art and offence, and our recent publication of guidance on staging controversial productions, join us to debate free speech, tolerance and extremism.
The debate follows a performance of Martyr, a play produced by ATC and the Unicorn Theatre. About a schoolboy who decides to become an ‘extremist’ Christian, and his subsequent clash with his radical-secular school teacher, Martyr explores how far one will go for what they believe in?
Homegrown was a play that sought to explore Islamic radicalisation among young people in the United Kingdom. The National Youth Theatre, the producers, said that “the subject matter of this play, its immersive form and its staging in a school required us to go beyond our usual stringent safeguarding procedures”. Apparently worried about the “creative and personal development of the young people” involved – the show was cancelled.
The discussion will feature:
Nadia Latif – Director, Homegrown
Moazzam Begg – ex-Guantanamo detainee and Director of Outreach CAGE
Rev Giles Fraser – priest, former canon St Paul’s Cathedral and columnist
Index on Censorship welcomes the latest statement from the National Youth Theatre (NYT) clarifying why it cancelled the production of Homegrown, a play which explored Islamic radicalisation among young people in the United Kingdom.
The production was two weeks into rehearsals when the cancellation was announced. The show, which had been in development for six months, was the product of workshops with British young people aged between 16 and 25. The production team and some of the cast released separate statements in response to the latest comments from the National Theatre.
Index remains deeply concerned that an arts project exploring an important subject, which young people of all ethnicities need to be able to discuss and debate, was closed down.
“We are worried that, without even a line of legislation being debated, the government has created an atmosphere whereby arts organisations are increasingly nervous of putting on any play that touches controversial subjects, and specifically the question of Islamic extremism,” said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg.
“We recognise that arts organisations have a duty to protect staff and audiences, but worry that a fear of offence is preventing them from fulfilling their duties to protect free expression. Arts groups need more support from the authorities – such as local police and councils – to ensure controversial work can be staged.”
Art and the Law: Guides to the legal framework and its impact on artistic freedom of expression
This statement is in response to an email sent by Paul Roseby, Artistic Director of The National Youth Theatre (NYT) to The Arts Council of England (ACE), in which our play, Homegrown, and its creative team were labelled as “extremist”. The creative team did not have an “extremist agenda”, they had one of support and allowance to a cast of over 100 artists who developed a response to pressing issues such as radicalisation.
We want to clarify that as a company working on this production we have the utmost respect and adoration for work that NYT do. The many members of NYT are not only our friends and colleagues, but they are also the people that will ultimately inspire the world as artists. We will continue to be staunch defenders of NYT and will work hard to be as involved as possible, because no other outlet for youthful creativity exists on the same playing field.
On the 31st July, Paul Roseby came before us as a company and explained that Homegrown was being cancelled. The afternoon before, Roseby and other significant figures within the organisation came to see Act 2, which is just a single act in a five-act play; and purposely the most controversial section of the play. As Roseby never viewed previous devised sections of the production we believe he was unaware of the play’s structure. This structure was carefully orchestrated in order to challenge every prospective audience member on a personal level, asking them to reassess their current views and received-opinions, whatever they may be. The message we are presenting with Homegrown is a well-rounded and intelligent discussion of a matter that needs to be dealt with in a direct and unmediated manner.
Claims were made within a statement by NYT that their position to continue forward with the play was “further compromised by the creative team’s inability to deliver a completed script at any time”. This is thoroughly incorrect as several attempts were offered by the creative team and the script was able to be read at any given time. Within the email that was sent to ACE they called for an overall “intelligent character arc,” as if dismissing the majority of individual, shorter character nuance already depicted within the piece. There is no overall intelligent arc on the issue of radicalisation. It is a difficult and multi-faceted discussion, which Homegrown looks to explore in as much of its entirety as possible.
With the inevitably delicate nature of coming into a creative process with such controversial topics, we sometimes felt like we treaded a fine line as a company. However, the overwhelming support from the entire creative team, specifically Nadia and Omar, assured us that we always had a heightened level of trust and safety. Every day as we peeled back yet more layers of the complex and nebulous issues surrounding radicalisation and Islamophobia, we became more aware of what was happening in the world around us. Our views were always treated with the utmost care and we were always given the option to refrain from participating in aspects we might initially feel uncomfortable with.
The issue of censorship undermines the very nature of art and, in this instance, has become an undeniable signpost of the state of our nation as one still rife with phobia. It is a genuine worry on behalf of the freedom of speech promised to creatives in this country and we do feel silenced as artists. The irony being that this is one of the poignant elements which runs through our play, Homegrown.
Signed by the following members of the Homegrown cast:
Grace Cooper Milton
Vanessa Dos Santos
Sam Rees Baylis
Mohammed B. Mansaray
Kai Kwasi Thorne
At the beginning of this year the National Youth Theatre approached us with an idea for a show – to create a large-scale, site-specific, immersive piece looking a the radicalisation of young British Muslims. The original commission was intended to use the Trojan Horse affair as its lens, although very early in our process that angle was abandoned in favour of something more nuanced. Homegrown was intended to be an exploration of radicalisation, the stories behind the headlines and the perceptions and realities of Islam and Muslim communities in Britain today. It’s important to state, however, that we had a number of reservations about making a play about ‘British Muslims going to join ISIS’. Throughout our careers, we have resisted playing to the logic of the entertainment industries and their particularly crude game of identity politics. Homegrown wasn’t to be FUBU – For Us By Us. We weren’t force-feeding our views to mindless young people, but exposing an astute and thoughtful young cast to the full spectrum of voices who are currently having that very conversation about radicalisation. We were giving them certain tools – a language, really – and then allowing them to work their way through it all. Over six months of assembling our enormous cast and workshopping ideas, we were very clear about exactly what we were making, and that the drive behind this was to create a piece of theatre which unsettled all the preconceived ideas people would come with to this subject matter.
Given our assumed closeness to the material, many would have expected us to have some kind of insider perspective to the constant barrage of questions and curiosities in today’s relentless conversation around Islam and it perceived modern day hang ups. We’re told to give serious attention to culture. It’s now said that culture is a matter of life and death – where being able to tell apart the Good Muslim and the Bad Muslim has become a central tenant of this warped, militarised worldview. Homegrown had no answers or solutions, no agenda or mission statement. It didn’t seek to educate, repair or improve people – but something in you would have shifted, we hope. If anything, we wanted to turn this kind of culture talk on its head.
Trouble was first encountered when the day after announcing the show to the press, our original venue of Raine’s Academy in Bethnal Green withdrew, after pressure from Tower Hamlets council. We were asked to be silent on the council’s pressure, so that a new venue could be secured with no problem – the official party line would be “logistical issues”. The show then had to be signed off by Camden Council in order to secure us our eventual venue of UCL Academy. We went into rehearsals with 70% of the show scripted (and signed off by NYT), and the remaining 30% to be devised with the cast during rehearsals. In a production meeting in the first week we were told that a meeting between the NYT and the police had taken place. We do not know who instigated that meeting, as we were not made aware of it until it had happened. The police wanted to read the final script, attend the first three shows, plant plain clothes policemen in the audience and sweep with the bomb squad. When we protested these measures, we were told the police held no power of ultimatum, and the issue was never raised again.
Rehearsals were brilliant, on schedule, and exceeded all our expectations. We were filled with nothing but admiration and deep respect for our amazing brave cast – who were really taking the material and running with it. We were then exactly halfway through rehearsals when we received an email late at night from NYT to tell us that Homegrown was cancelled. We would have done our first full run of the show two days after that. There was no warning, no consultation and no explanation. All our attempts at meetings with the NYT since then have been delayed and then cancelled.
In terms of the current discussions around censorship and artistic freedoms, it’s important to us to clarify that the cancellation of Homegrown doesn’t fall into the same categories as Bezhti, Exhibit B or The City. The tendency to conflate all these cases does a disservice to the nuances of each – and in some instances banalises the legitimate anger they have created. There’s qualitative differences between a show pulled due to pressure exerted by particular groups or communities and Homegrown, which came under the watchful gaze of both formal institutions and arms of the state. There’s no question that had the show been cancelled due to Muslim rage, then we would be celebrated as contemporary Salman Rushdies – courageous bastions of free speech fighting off conservative or reactionary forces within our imagined communities rather than as either incompetent artists or unrefined agitators. We jump to support artists struggling to make work in the regimes of the East, but here in our haven of Western liberal democracy, we hesitate to stand behind those pushing against some of that very same, more insidious, authoritarianism. We’re all making art in a particular political climate – which includes Prevent and Channel. These are programmes which, although intended to stop people getting drawn towards violent extremism, are creating an environment in which certain forms of questioning of the given narrative pertaining to radicalisation or extremism can be closed down. If the acceptable parameters of this discussion are to remain that of inarticulate, mad mullahs in one corner, self-hating Ayaan Hirsi Alis in the other, all refereed by think tank dwellers such as Maajid Nawaaz – then this vital conversation will continue to go nowhere.
Signed, Nadia Latif (director and co-creator), Omar El-Khairy (writer and co-creator)