Good theatre can do lots of things: it can delight, amuse, and amaze. Far, far less common are the plays that make you sit up in your seat, that pull the wool from your eyes, that leave you angry and aghast. Trojan Horse is certainly one. Produced by LUNG, the play revolves around the scandal that erupted in March 2014, when a hoax letter received by Birmingham City Council was leaked to the press. The letter detailed a five-stage plan for Islamists to infiltrate schools and governing boards in Birmingham, overthrowing head teachers and wresting control. From there the touchpaper was lit: hostile media coverage fuelled hysteria about clandestine Islamisation, and, at the behest of Michael Gove, then head of the Department of Education, the schools involved were swiftly investigated, their teachers and governors heavily sanctioned.
Trojan Horse brings together 5 characters whose lives are affected by the scandal: Farah, a pupil at Park View, one of the schools targeted by the government's investigation; her teacher, Rashid, wrongly accused of sowing the seeds of extremism; Tahir, the head of the educational trust of which Park View forms part, who is impelled to step down; Jess, a member of the Birmingham City Council who is cross-examined for not acting earlier; and Elaine, the original whistleblower, a head teacher who feels that she was forced out of her last school by predominantly Muslim parents and governors.
There is plenty of bite and barb to the play, which expressly targets Gove and Andrew Gilligan, one of the key journalists reporting on the case. It also brings out the completely farcical aspects of the whole scandal: that there were helicopters circling over schools and inept investigators within their gates, counting pupils in headscarves; that Ofsted had previously rated some of the involved schools as Outstanding, publicly commending their academic excellence, and yet now returned to ransack them for signs of extremism; that the man heading up one of the inquiries was Peter Clarke, an ex-head of Counter-Terrorism Command, with no background in education at all. That, finally, after months of uncertainty and turmoil, the legal cases against accused teachers and governors collapsed due to evidence being either mishandled or unjustified.
But perhaps more impactful are the ways that the piece depicts the human stories of those caught up in it all. Gurkiran Kaur poignantly portrays the transformation of Farah, who initially is full of razor-sharp backchat and has aspirations of going to university. But as Park View falls under heavy-handed surveillance, she loses interest in academic work and feels increasingly isolated at school, which is especially difficult given that she has a secret that sets her apart from her family at home. Mustafa Chaudhry and Qasim Mahmood, as Rashid and Tahir, embody the torment and hurt of their characters, who are both committed to raising educational standards and keeping students on the right path, and yet are scapegoated for their beliefs.
It's an exhilaratingly-staged exposé too. At scene changes, school desks are manipulated to form courtroom boxes, all to the soundtrack of bassy, jungle beats and distorted soundbites from Gove, Cameron and others, while behind the cast, a screen gives the audience chapter titles in English and Urdu (there are free headsets on offer too, providing an Urdu version of the play). There's never time for your mind to wander, even during the multiple scenes at hearings and committee meetings: this dizzying piece unfolds with the unrelenting pace of a legal drama and the punch of an investigative documentary. And while there is a degree of stagecraft in the visuals, the narrative holds true to what actually took place, the play adapted from over 200 hours of interviews conducted by LUNG as well as the contents of public documents and testimonies.
It's a compellingly trenchant piece, made so by the brilliant cast and exhaustive work of the production and research team. But it's also one that leaves you rankling, angry at the aftermath. As we learnt in the post-show Q&A, the press failed to report on the conclusions of the legal cases, and the defence cases of the accused teachers and governors were never brought to light, justice never done. The Trojan Horse conspiracy theory became a political football for David Cameron's election campaign, and Gove continues to pop up in the corridors of power like a bad penny. Oxford and Warwick form the final two stops on LUNG's second UK tour, after which they will perform Trojan Horse in the Houses of Parliament. What I would give to see that.