Another in the series from our roving arts reporter, David Smith.
“Is it easier this way? Is it? Blame someone else because you didn’t have a clue what was happening…does it make you feel better to blame someone else?”
I was in London earlier this month and saw a piece of Theatre in Education written for 16-19 year-olds in Further Education presented by a professional company: Mad ‘Ed Theatre.
The play opens on a bare stage with six chairs as props. You now have no option but to focus on the actors and their words without distraction. The 55 minute production is emotionally charged, moving, and totally engaging. It focuses on a single Muslim family over a period of 48 hours.
Two strong female characters emerge: a teenager, Shamilla and her mother played brilliantly by the same actor, Alexandra D’Sa. Rupinder Nagra as the father, provides a mature strong acting presence deeply troubled by what he learns, by what he should have known. Rishi Nair, Shamilla’s confident boyfriend, slowly learns truths about himself he has failed to recognise. Hayley Powell as a solicitor and the troubled teenager Aisha successfully captures two hugely contrasting characters.
It opens with two police officers visiting the household. The parents think that the visit is in response to their earlier report that their 15 year-old daughter Shamilla is missing. The police have, in fact, come about another matter. Their son, believed by his parents to be on a package holiday, has posted an on-line message from Syria. The parents, hard-working, long-standing members of the community have no understanding about what is happening around them within their own family. Their daughter Shamilla, has spent the last 24 hours with an older boyfriend who, when he realises what has happened to her brother, takes her home.
Mother: Our children are not our children. Not anymore.
We do not know our own children. Nobody does.
The play is multi-layered. The characters: Shamilla, her parents, her boyfriend, police officers, a solicitor and a troubled teenager, act out a range of views on radicalisation, racism, attitudes to young people, sexism, immigration and the value of our education system. But the large question which dominates is the issue of responsibility. Each character is forced to ask: ‘What has been my contribution to what has transpired?’…‘Could I have done more to prevent it?’
The emotionally charged scenes between mother and father show a couple learning not only about what has been happening around them but also about their own relationship. But it is also true that the interaction between all the characters shows each one gradually coming to a deeper, and at times a painful understanding of themselves.
The final scenes show the daughter Shamilla made a Ward of Court and removed from the family home to ‘a place of safety’ – a hostel – where she shares a room with a deeply troubled girl, Aisha. After a strong exchange between the two girls as they talk about why they are in this place, the play ends with:
Aisha: Your brother…did you tell someone?
A moment of silence..then…
Shamilla: I do know about this. I do know about this.
The girls hold each other’s hand.
Shamilla: So. Will we? Tell?
As an excellent piece of theatre in education the play does not offer any answers but offers enough for an audience to debate the issues involved.
The play, My Brothers and Sisters, was not paid for by the ‘Prevent’ programme. It was commissioned and paid for by City of Westminster College in London as a part of its response to the ‘Prevent’ Strategy. I congratulate the College on the way that the play has been compulsory viewing for all full-time students and not been limited to drama groups. It has been seen by all 5,000 of their students over two weeks and has included two evening performances for other interested theatre goers.
After each performance, a series of resources has enabled tutors to lead discussions of the issues raised, issues identified by their students, in their tutor groups. This is no “love ’em and leave ’em” approach; it is the way theatre in education should work – best practice.
(The play is available to tour by contacting Mad ‘Ed directly.)
Shamilla: Bad people get good people to do bad things.