Writers Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead talk about LUNG’s latest production, ‘Trojan Horse’ currently on tour
In 2013, the Birmingham local council would receive a damaging letter claiming a plot was underway to run local schools under strict Islamic doctrine. This letter outlined a plan known to many as ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, its ultimate aim of whomever sent it, to implicate various figures. This very letter would then be passed onto the Home Office and Department of Education and would subsequently be leaked to mainstream press. This very letter would start off a chain reaction of detrimental events – insensitive headline articles, emergency OFSTED inspections of 21 schools in Birmingham and Michael Gove openly criticising the Home Office on tackling ‘non violent extremism’. Tahir Alam, the former chairman of the Park View Educational Trust who ran three schools in Birmingham and fourteen other teachers would receive lifetime bans that would later be dismissed. This scandal was damaging to the local community of Birmingham, and sadly six years on, we’re living in a world whereby Islamaphobia is on the rise, scandals such as this fuelling a dangerous climate of hate. Tapping into the voices affected by the repercusions of this national scandal, writers of LUNG Theatre Company Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead talk about their latest show ‘Trojan Horse’ – a show placing verbatim at its core.
Hi Helen and Matt, your show ‘Trojan Horse’ will go on tour, starting at Leeds Playhouse in early October. How are you feeling ahead of the run?
Full of existential dread. Just kidding – well, sort of. This is the biggest tour we’ve ever done as a company and we desperately want to do this story justice. I don’t think our bums will unclench until opening night… and maybe not even then. We’re honoured that Trojan Horse is going to be opening the new Leeds Playhouse, which has been under redevelopment for the last year, and we really want to do those guys justice too. Gilly, the new work producer at Leeds Playhouse, was the only person to believe in this show from the very beginning. No one else wanted to take the risk. If it wasn’t for Leeds Playhouse and their amazing Furnace scheme – a new work scheme the play was developed through – there wouldn’t be a play at all. So it’s all very HIGH STAKES. We’re doing a lot of deep breathing.
Trojan Horse uncovers the truth behind the local story which made national press, accusing ‘hardline’ Muslim teachers and governors of plotting extremism in Birmingham schools – famously known as the ‘Trojan Horse Scandal’. What inspired you both to explore this particular story?
Helen: I am a Brummie and the long term impact of Trojan Horse on my home city is massive. I’ve never understood what actually happened in those schools and this play was a way of finding out. Away from the noise of the headlines and the political rhetoric, we wanted to tell the story of Trojan Horse from the voices of the people who seem to have been silenced – the people who were actually there. And in particular, the voices of the children in those schools.
The show uses verbatim to explore the stories of those directly affected by the scandal. How did you approach conducting research?
We got in touch with Tahir Alam, the chair of governors and educationalist accused of being ‘at the centre of it all’. We asked if he’d be up for meeting and were really surprised when he said yes. But as soon as we met him we realised why – Tahir’s reputation had been so tarnished by Trojan Horse, and his own voice and perspective of events was rarely ever published or put forward. There was no more damage to be done. Over the course of 2 years we met up with Tahir several times, as well as 88 other governors, teachers, pupils, parents, councillors, MPs, civil servants and reporters to gather as much evidence and as many voices as possible. We ended up with over 200 hours worth of interviews. We also managed to get hold of the transcripts from the teachers trials, Ofsted reports, EFA reports and of course the Parliamentary select committees and Clarke and Kershaw reports (looking into Trojan Horse) are public documents. Our problem by the end was distilling all of that down into an hour and 15 minutes.
How have you both collaborated to create the show?
Helen: Me and Matt conducted all the interviews, transcribed those interviews and wrote the script. Together we casted the show, and Matt then directed the play. But this was a huge team effort bigger than the two of us. We had an amazing script consultant, Aisha Khan from Freedom Studios. We also had our academic advisor Professor John Holmwood, who’s worked with us for the last 3 years. We have then worked with the amazing playwright Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi who has translated the play into Urdu. This will be available at every performance for Urdu speaking audiences to listen through provided headsets. And it will also be published with the English version of the play. For the tour we are collaborating with our Engagement Management Madiha Ansari and her company the Cultural Ecology Project to deliver ambitious wrap around work – schools and community workshops, schools performances, free tickets for Urdu speaking audiences and a post-show discussion after every performance.
Most importantly we have worked closely with the teachers, governors and students from Alum Rock – with them feeding back on drafts of the script, meeting with the cast, helping design the engagement around the show – to make sure the play feels like a truthful retelling of what really happened in Birmingham, and allows a space for discussion of what could happen next.
Have you both learned anything new from creating the show?
The work we always make is verbatim, and as a result you really get to know the people who’s voices are in the show. Those voices have taught us so much. We have learnt from the teachers and governors and students in Alum Rock about what really happened, from Councillors about the inner workings of Birmingham City Council, from the press about the way the news cycle works. We’ve also spent a lot of wild Friday nights in with the 1944 Education Act, something neither of us knew much about before!
What can audiences expect from the show?
As well as the story itself being eye opening, fast paced and deeply moving, the spectacle of the show is quite something – if we do say so ourselves. We feel like we can say that, because it’s not really us. We are working with such an amazing team – the sound and lighting design in particular are exceptional. I’d say a bonus for audiences too is it’s only an hour and 15 minutes straight through. This gives the show a real urgency, and lets the tension of the story build without the interruption of an ice-cream. (If you’re a fan of ice-cream, you can get one for the post-show q&a).
What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?
Although the story is tragic – highlighting government corruption, racism, a community divided and the brutality of political power – we really want audiences to feel empowered to do something. The conversation shouldn’t stop after the lights have come up. That’s our motivation for the post-show panels after every performance, chaired by our amazing Engagement Manager Madiha Ansari. We also have our academic advisor Professor John Holmwood taking sabbatical from Nottingham University to tour with the production. He was an expert witness for the defence at the teachers tribunals, and has written an amazing book – ‘Countering Extremism in British Schools?’ which will be available to buy after each show. No, we’re not taking commission! We’re hoping this play is the beginning of a conversation.
What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Read other people’s plays. Take your time. And at LUNG, we really recommend picking up a microphone – 99% of the time, someone else will say it better than you could ever write it.
Questions by Lucy Basaba.
Trojan Horse is currently on tour, to find out more about the production, visit here…