|Manchester theatre reviews|
Written by Vivienne Franzmann, directed by Matthew Dunster and designed by Tom Scutt.
Reviewed by Jane Turner January 2011
Manchester’s fantastic Royal Exchange Theatre brings its current season to a close with the world premiere of the Bruntwood prize-winning play MOGADISHU by Vivienne Franzmann. The play is called MOGADISHU says Franzmann "because this is a word that is synonymous with chaos" which is what this play depicts.
This new play, advertised as gripping and urgent was one of the four joint winners of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and went on to win this year’s prestigious George Devine Award for new writing. It is the first play by author Vivienne Franzmann a former East London secondary school teacher.
Set in an inner city London school, MOGADISHU centres on white, liberal-leaning teacher Amanda. When she is pushed to the ground by black student Jason, she is reluctant to report him as she knows exclusion could condemn him to a future as troubled as his past. She becomes sucked into a vortex of lies in which victim becomes perpetrator and where tensions mount as the truth becomes less clear and more dangerous by the day.
Franzmann took a year off from teaching to write the play and it is based on her own observations as a teacher and the experiences of teachers who have faced false allegations from students.
The young cast of this play were cool and convincing; their school uniforms suitably embellished as is the norm these days, and worn with the style of a teen with attitude and affected individualism. The language they used was of the hard street variety; foul, littered with slang and delivered with energy, wit and vitality. The boys were rude and coarse and obsessed with sex and references to girls’ body parts. The tireless and exaggerated mannerisms, gyrating, gesticulating and generally jerky body language made watching them conversing quite exhausting – how do they keep it up? The sudden shifts into adolescent moodiness or anger so familiar to those of us who have to work in schools every day were so realistic I almost felt like I was back in the school-yard instead of having a night off at the theatre! Surrounded by a cage to represent the boundaries of the school whilst at the same time symbolising imprisonment, the stage was perfectly set.
With periodic blasts of the school bell at each scene changeover and the noise of what sounded like a thousand students bowling down the corridors, chatting loudly and rapping monotonously and just a hint of threat and menace and you were instantly transported into the hustle and bustle of the modern-day school environment. But although the cast, set and sound effects were very good, the stand out performance of the night was the script. Fast-paced with great narrative momentum, witty, poignant, shocking and observant – and obviously written by someone who has definitely been there, seen that and gets what life in a school is really like in the 21st century - it was to coin one of the teenagers' idioms- "maad"!
The play also bears all the trademarks of the prevailing therapeutic and emotionally obsessed culture we now live in, providing a stark and disturbing example of what can happen when society fails to give meaning to what it is to be an adult and a child; when adult authority is devalued and that of the child inflated. There were several scenes in the play where this was neatly encapsulated, my own favourite being when a young Turkish student admonishes the Head teacher for allowing students to smoke, swear, fight, break the rules and get away with it. "Why don’t you do anything about it?" He asks quite sincerely, having recently arrived from Turkey, where he says children are beaten with a stick for dis-respecting adults, which results in laughter from the other teenagers.
Dilemmas are nothing new to most people, just part and parcel of every day life. But in the topsy turvy world of today’s teacher, they are more than just a regular part of the daily diet – they are a source of genuine worry and concern. Teachers, once respected members of the community, looked up to and mostly obeyed have lost their confidence. They are now no longer the font-of-all-knowledge; they have been downgraded to "facilitators" and life-long learners, who learn from and alongside their students. In today’s schools, it is the student who decides what, when, how and even if to learn and the teacher is now expected to act as therapist, counsellor, mental-health worker, parent, social worker and good neighbour and be always mindful of students’ feelings and happiness, well-being and diet.
The focus is no longer on subject knowledge or on cultivating and challenging young minds and teaching them to think for themselves, but instead thanks to decades of political interference, the student and parents now have a louder voice than the authority figures of yesteryear and there is no distinction between what once passed for raising a child and what now passes as education. It’s no wonder teachers are nervous and uncertain when it comes to making what once would have been a straightforward decision. And it is because of this that Amanda, a teacher with deeply held convictions about what is best for the child is driven to eventual despair.
In this chaotic and ever-changing environment it is hardly surprising that what should be a simple and clear cut breach of rules – student pushes teacher to the ground – becomes a source of heart-wringing worry for Amanda as she soul-searches and frets about how a reprimand might affect this student’s happiness, well-being and future employability, instead of just exercising the right and proper authority and getting on with the job of teaching him a clear lesson about good behaviour and about who is actually in charge. Her lack of authority, doubt and concern for the "whole child" and his "personal and emotional needs" makes her lose sight of what really is at issue.
To report or not to report? That is the question faced by the well-intentioned Amanda - and it will be a problem familiar to many teachers who are no longer sure about how and when to discipline students. The way the teacher behaves – or any adult for that matter - sends out clear signals about who is in charge and what to expect and students and young people take notice and learn from this. Where the teacher shows confusion, indecision and reluctance to behave in an authoritative way – as in this case – it makes life very difficult when trying to maintain discipline or practice authority. It is Amanda’s reluctance to get her student – Jason - into trouble which leads him to take advantage and turn the tables on her.
Add a dose of potential racism to the mix in a tough "multi-cultural" inner city setting – teacher is white, student is black - and an uneasy blend of cultures and values imported to the playground of a London school and in Mogadishu you have a minefield of ticking time-bombs.
Jason – referred to as "Afro-Caribbean" and played to surly perfection by Malachi Kirby, is as troubled as the countries his family is said to be descended from, as ravaged by the bitter warfare raging in their parts and as unevenly developed in almost every sense of the word. He is Trouble with a capital T. Even more reason, in my view to introduce discipline and order. He has no clear idea of what is right or wrong, his father is depicted as a stern and embittered bully and his mother is dead, so Amanda feels sorry for him and fails to report a clear case of bullying and assault during an attack in the playground in order to "stop him from getting into more trouble". He then tries to protect himself in the only way he knows how to, and lies, accusing Amanda not only of pushing him but of calling him a "black bastard".
When Jason coerces and threatens his motley mix of easily-led and loyal schoolmates to back up his story, Amanda is suspected, suspended and separated from the staff, the rest of her pupils and the investigative process that gets underway and which moves rapidly towards the wrong conclusion. Jason's hastily made up story and it's consequences gathers pace, affecting friendships, families and feelings and leads to a mix of disastrous consequences. The Head teacher, like many forced by child-friendly laws to "protect the vulnerable student", is indecisive, ineffective and unsupportive towards Amanda – she with the long service and excellent record – whilst at the same time embarrassingly ingratiating himself towards Jason and his father – despite his never-ending record of terribly troublesome breaches of every rule under the sun.
Now don’t get me wrong, it isn’t always easy to ignore the problems of students and the effects, their "difficult", disadvantaged and un-stable backgrounds, their special needs and insecurities and it would take a heart of stone not to be affected by some of the real hardships faced by many students. I won’t bore you with the desperate details of the many I come across and hear about – it really is only to be expected in a world riddled with inequality. But as my dad often reminds me, things were much tougher in his day (doesn’t everyone’s dad say this?), and poverty and "emotional issues" were never held to be an excuse for bad behaviour "when I was a lad".
Where once stoicism and the "stiff upper lip" prevailed, and those seeking professional help for "mental health issues" were stigmatised, today it has become the norm, positing us as fragile and feeble and in need of the continuous intervention of therapy and an army of professionals to help us get through life and it’s constant traumas. Indeed in one of the many amusing and observant set pieces in this play, Jason and his friends are hanging out and chatting in the playground about which "intervention" groups they are in, all of them with various laughable and convoluted acronyms and abbreviations, designed to support them and encourage them and save them from "being outright failures" as one of them puts it and to "achieving a C or a D" (which used to pass for failure in my day but which now seems to be acceptable to many).
Today’s students are well versed in the language of therapy culture and can roll out a whole list of what are more often than not, just excuses for poor and un-disciplined behaviour given a label by an army of counsellors and support workers; this syndrome and that syndrome and whatever-you-can-think-up-to-justify-it-syndrome. This stands in stark contrast to the way people viewed their engagement with adversity in the past – real adversity that is – transcending their difficulties, instead of just acknowledging them and bowing down to them in victimhood as if owning a badge of honour. "I’m a problem-child, get me out of here".
Jason, just like many others today comes with a label, with "issues" and is said to be "emotionally scarred" as he comes from a country in conflict and turmoil, from darkest Africa where they are all assumed to need our help and from a single-parent family and love-lacking home. We are therefore expected to be more concerned with his feelings as justification for his disorderly behaviour. Amanda is too quick to find a "reason" for his lack of respect and to offer a therapeutic remedy in the form of intervention and/or counselling. If this incident had taken place during my dads schooldays, there would have been a caning and/or expulsion because the student broke the rules and defied authority – simples!
Being a "bad lad" was once just that, now it’s a syndrome requiring intervention from the psychologist’s popular front! I remember challenging the rules in school "once or twice" and getting caught out and punished – rapped on the knuckles with a ruler, left to stand in a cold corridor and detained after school. If I’d simply said I was insolent and argumentative because I lived on the wrong estate and didn’t get any pocket money, and was traumatised by the experience, I could have had a quick chat with one of the docs and avoided the pain of the punishment, then I might have been able to behave badly again and get away with it (especially during double Maths) because I had "issues".
Joking apart though, it is a sad fact that politicians and experts have meddled so much and so often in education that schools are now used as vehicles to tackle the many problems of the unequal Capitalist society we live in to such an extent that their original raison d’être – education – is downgraded and those in authority are undermined. Now that is something that does need treatment!
Well, this play gets an A from me, not quite an A* because of its slightly implausible and over-dramatic conclusion (I wont give it away), but otherwise, it’s an observant and witty script, with great character performances delivered around modern day dilemmas written by an experienced teacher with a great eye for detail!
The cast includes Hammed Animashaun, Ian Bartholomew, Christian Dixon, Julia Ford, Savannah Gordon-Liburd, Tara Hodge, Fraser James, Tendayi Jembere, Michael Karim, Malachi Kirky, Farshid Rokey and Shannon Tarbet.
Sets and costumes have been designed by Tom Scutt, whose other credits include the recent production of HAMLET at Sheffield Crucible and Rupert Goold’s RSC production of ROMEO AND JULIET. The creative team is completed by Philip Gladwell (lighting), Ian Dickinson (sound), Wyllie Longmore (voice coach), Kevin McCurdy (fight director) and Kim Pearce (Assistant Director).
Wednesday 26 January – Saturday 19 February 2011
Transfers to the Lyric, Hammersmith: 7 March - 2 April 2011