[Written by Katie Moody (she/her)]
[Image Credits: Ant Robling]
Content Warning: Discussion of islamophobia
Trojan Horse adapts real life testimonies to recount the story of the Trojan Horse scandal. The scandal involved the investigation of several predominantly Muslim Birmingham schools, following a hoax letter sent to Birmingham City Council. The letter laid out a plan for an Islamic take-over of these schools and the introduction of extremist ideals. By use of these testimonies, the play largely explores the scandal from the perspective of those most affected.
One brilliant thing about this play is that it sheds light on some hugely important and relevant themes. The Trojan Horse scandal to many of us (myself included) probably seems fairly clear cut – institutionalised racism leading to the disproportionate targeting of Muslims. In wider British society, however, the scandal has been the source of much division and debate.
Throughout, there is a focus on the concept of “British values” and the exclusionary impact such discourse can have on immigrant communities. The play does well to point out that “Muslim values” and “British values” are not mutually exclusive. The obvious point here is that many British people are Muslim and as such are part of the tapestry that makes up the complex notion of Britishness. However, the point, which was made more explicitly, is that the majority of teachings in Islam have parallels in what most would consider British values (despite the elusiveness of this concept).
The themes of home and a sense of place were also confronted, specifically by featuring parts of the trial. One section which stood out was the controversy over the call to prayer being played over the PA system in a supposedly secular school. During the trial, it was pointed out that there is no such thing as a secular school in the UK – government guidelines include that some acts of worship should occur in schools. Of course, these tend to be Christian. However, in a school in which the vast majority of pupils are Muslim, it would seem odd if it weren’t Islamic worship being practised. This calls into question why people are often so reluctant to allow different cultures to forge their own home in the UK, where they are free to alter and mould it whilst still respecting the core principles of tolerance and acceptance. At what point did we decide to stunt the evolution of Britishness – after the Anglo-Saxons, the union of the crowns or sometime after? Who exactly is it that gets to decide which cultural elements are allowed to be incorporated into what it means to be British? Featuring the trial in the play allowed the audience to consider these issues on their own, whilst drawing attention to some of the hypocrisies of modern Britain.
Whilst drawing attention to these issues is to the play’s merit, many of the messages which were presented were already implicit in the scandal; they could be gleaned from a quick search of the internet and from harbouring liberal sensibilities. Whilst the writing contained well selected pieces of information to drive home the themes, the play itself did little with the story. The format was largely comprised of transitions and monologues, leaving us with a feeling of watching an extended news piece. Further, much of it felt like it was preaching to the converted. From the onslaught of jibes directed at Michael Gove (the Education Secretary at the time of the scandal) to a play on the well-known Three Little Pigs line culminating in “blow your school up”, a lot of it felt a bit on the nose. This is fine if the audience already agreed with you – it certainly gives them good ammunition in future debates. Although anger is arguably merited and at times can be useful, there is something to be said for a focus on the cultural context which allowed the scandal to happen rather than angry jibes at a Tory government whose failings are well documented.
Further, many of the directorial decisions appear to have been taken pretty lightly, often seeming to have little justification and at times having a counterproductive impact. For example, the set was mainly comprised of school desks which were rearranged via choreographed movements to create new settings. This paired with the use of projected text onto a chalkboard gave the impression that these devices were included because they would probably look interesting. The impact, however, was that the schools at the centre of the allegations remained at the forefront of the piece, encouraging the play to be seen as a story about a scandal and distracting the audience from the issue of the treatment of British Muslims in a wider sense. This dampened the impact of the play as allegorical. Since the script at times appeared at pains to explicate the wider implications, it seems unlikely that this was a decision made with much in mind beyond crow-barring in something which might be visually interesting.
Trojan Horse is an important play in its message. The testimonies which were adapted were well selected and some of the performances were excellent. However, some poor directorial choices didn’t do an otherwise fascinating story justice. Nonetheless, I would recommend seeing it for an interesting and informative take on a major scandal. It fully explores what home means to British Muslims.