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BY CALLING Theatre Peckham in London a “learning theatre,” its artistic director Suzann McLean explains that it enables young people in the area to experience all aspects of the theatre world.
It's certainly the case that on the night I visit, its new 200-seat theatre space, two studios, workrooms and a bubbling foyer snack bar throb with energy.
Her current production of Anders Lustgarten’s hard-hitting play Extremism — based on the pernicious Prevent protocol, the government’s requirement that teachers should monitor and report any signs of “radicalisation” in their pupils — features a 10-strong cast of young professional actors, many drawn from evening classes at Theatre Peckham.
Thanks to the ready support of Southwark Council, McLean has worked to make the theatre a community base where people can meet at all times, providing a sense of social identity in a changing neighbourhood.
Lustgarten, along with major works like his Globe production of The Secret Theatre — which draws parallels between Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham and our contemporary surveillance state — tells me that he “likes to write hands-on stuff” like extremism.
“I like to see what’s going on now in a much clearer light than any other modern playwright,” he confidently claims.
The play explores the damage caused among a class of adolescents when one of their number, the Muslim Jamail, has been taken from a lesson by the police, having been referred by the school under the government’s counter-terrorism strategy Prevent.
Anyone in doubt as to the benign nature of the Prevent instructions might spend an hour or so working through the online documents and videos assuring anyone reporting their suspicions would not be criminalising their students, although “the police may be concerned.”
In McLean’s production, an exuberantly expectant audience bundle into a classroom setup, where the class, bewildered by events, exchange views laced with the anarchic interplay of teacherless freedom.
As disagreements arise about the possibility that the absent Jamail could possibly be guilty of criminal intent, the arguments, fuelled by hidden anxieties, become increasingly antagonistic and finally violent.
If occasionally the author’s voice takes over from that of the kids, the cast is universally convincing in their roles. They may be young but they mirror the situations faced and the reactions taken by the public in general as undercurrents of irrational tensions born of the political chaos of our current social reality increasingly invade social discourse.
Lustgarten is clear in his analysis of where we have arrived in our fractured society. He is contemplating writing a play on the Weimar Republic in the Germany of the 1930s, which he regards as “a super interesting analogy for now,” to portray how “terror of the left-led liberals to co-ordinate with the right” and empower fascism.
For the writer, “the most interesting political phenomenon that has happened in the last four years has been the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a genuine left-wing Labour Party.”
With a wicked glee, he posits an “analogy between the German Establishment placating Hitler and the BBC placating Farage because they think they are cleverer than him and can control him because they are terrified of a left-wing alternative.”
Lustgarten has often attacked what he calls the “cowardice” of British theatre, yet he still believes that its “human immediacy makes it unique” and it can influence people because it creates a unique emotive connection.
While being under no illusions about the conditioning the media, especially TV, serves up to its audiences, he believes theatre is freer from the “economic imperatives... of all of the media it is perhaps the least corporate-controlled.”
That's why it's easier to get work like Extremism shown and it's a very persuasive reason for going to see it.
Extremism runs until November 23, box office: theatrepeckham.co.uk.
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