There has been a fine history of theatre challenging prejudice but the government’s counter-extremism Prevent strategy is pushing theatre in a different direction. Its funding of an anti-extremism ‘Theatre in Education’ has been contributing to the negative perception of Muslims and discouraging public theatre from staging productions that are critical of this.
The money distributed can be significant. The Play House Theatre linked to the Birmingham Rep received £248,000 between 2012 and 2019. GW Theatre in Manchester was given £151,800 in 2009 alone. Prevent funds are also allocated by local councils and police. Alice Bartlett’s play Not in My Name about a Muslim teenager bombing a supermarket was ‘commissioned by, and… developed in continuous partnership with, the counterterrorism branch of the Lancashire Constabulary’.
Mad Ed Theatre’s My Brothers & Sisters – A play about radicalisation, funded by Prevent of Westminster Council, focuses on the Muslims who failed to report the student Mohammed who has appeared in an Islamic State video. We never see or hear from Mohammed. Instead, we get his friend who didn’t report him, because ‘you don’t snake a brother’, and his sister Shamila, critical of western intervention in Iraq, being taken into care because the authorities regard her parents as too naive to protect their children. This narrowly defines extremism as Islamic and the failure to deal with it as the collective fault of Muslim characters, who are merely mouthpieces for different ‘dysfunctional’ positions.
Some Prevent-funded theatre tries to avoid being simply concerned with Muslim extremists, by adding far-right extremists to their plots. Tapestry from the Play House Theatre and GW Theatre’s One Extreme To the Other both present us with a young woman counselling moderation to a white male who wants to march with the far-right and a Muslim male wanting to join the counter-demonstration.
But audiences will see these shows in a context where the public debate about extremism persistently links the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ with terrorism, grooming and foreign wars. In contrast, the far right barely gets a mention publicly, with even its connection to atrocities likely to be qualified with the suggestion that the perpetrator is mentally unbalanced. And since 2015, there is a more serious problem for the school audiences of these plays. In that year the government made it a statutory duty for those working in education to refer ‘individuals who are at risk of… not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism’. In effect, people are reported not for having committed a crime but for having exhibited behaviour that might lead to a crime.
Post-show workshops often reveal a student’s attitude to the views of extremist characters. Questionnaires completed by 260 students who saw Tapestry (Winston and Strand, 2013), found 18 per cent agreed with a lot of what the extremist Islamic character said and 25 per cent agreed with a lot of what the extreme right-wing character said. Should such students be referred to the police?
The Play House Theatre, who were performing Tapestry until the Covid-19 interruption, said in August 2020 that it was not their role ‘to refer participants… our counterterrorism work (is) a safeguarding issue and not a political issue’.
It is hard to imagine with all this attention that the extremists supposedly haunting our schools could evade capture. But in 2014 the media rushed to reveal an anonymous letter detailing how Islamic extremists planned to take over Birmingham schools in the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot. The moral panic generated four inquiries, including one by the Department of Education headed by Peter Clarke, former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism division.
If the might of British journalism rushed at this scandal with the investigative common sense of a tadpole, the subsequent debunking of the plot seemed to interest few of them. Fortunately, it caught the attention of socially-engaged theatre company Lung, whose verbatim drama Trojan Horse, not funded by Prevent, drew on more than 200 interviews and many reports to reconstruct an attack on Muslims by journalists and politicians that traumatised a school and terrified a community. It was one of the most exciting shows at the 2018 Edinburgh festival, where it won the Amnesty International award and came third in The List magazine’s aggregation of critics’ top-rated shows.
Given its success, there was an expectation that the Birmingham Rep, with three performance spaces, would be eager to stage the voices of their traumatised community in a play co-authored by someone born in Birmingham. However, Lung’s academic advisor John Holmwood reports that the Rep felt itself ‘unable to book the Trojan Horse play because it had commissioned theatre workshops to schools as part of the Prevent agenda’.
Instead, the Rep brought to Birmingham the ridiculous play Meek about a future religious fundamentalist government in Scandinavia that executes someone for singing. In the critics’ listing that placed Trojan Horse third, Meek slunk in at 1,310th. But its slight story of a faraway brutal religious extremism would fit better with the Prevent agenda than one that challenged institutional prejudice against Muslims. The Rep was running with the persecutors not with the persecuted.
They are not the only ones. The media regularly reinforces negative stereotypes about Muslims. The UK elects a prime minister who calls women wearing the burka letterboxes. The head of Ofsted complains about girls wearing a hijab in school. Is it any wonder, that between 2017 and 2018 police figures show a 40 per cent rise in religious hate crime?
Prevent funding is a slippery slope that may begin with good intentions but ends by censoring good theatre. Theatre should resist its temptations and join with others in challenging that prejudice.
Keith McKenna is a theatre reviewer and political activist based in London. This article originally appeared in Issue #230, ‘Struggles for Truth’, published December 2020
#232: Rue Britannia ● The legacy of the British Empire ● An interview with Priyamvada Gopal ● The People’s Olympics ● An interview with Neville Southall ● Agribusiness in India ● Deliveroo’s disastrous IPO ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
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