In 2015, the National Youth Theatre asked writer Omar El-Khairy and director Nadia Latif to create a show with its members about the radicalisation of young Muslims. Rehearsals for Homegrown began that summer with a sprawling cast. Around 70% of the script was already written, with the rest to be created through contributions from the cast. But halfway through the rehearsals period the production was abruptly cancelled; the NYT’s artistic director Paul Roseby cited a lack of quality and the need to protect the young people involved in the project.
There was no sign of a lack of quality at Conway Hall in London on Monday evening when an extract of the play was performed as part of An Inconvenient Muslim, an event organised by Index on Censorship to mark the publication of Homegrown that included a panel debate around the issues of censorship and representation of Muslims in society and the arts. There was no sign either of young people in need of protection from either challenging ideas or provocative theatre. Many of the original cast have stayed with the project over the last 20 months, and their commitment to it was demonstrated by electrifying performances of some scenes
Our play about the radicalisation of young Muslims was pulled. But the National Theatre’s is going ahead – with no censorship or police intervention. Why can’t Muslims tell their own stories?
I’ve read the full play, and it is unwieldy and very different from many traditional play scripts. This is largely because the original production was designed to be an immersive promenade experience, but also because its form reflects the way we communicate in an age of social media, particularly if you are under 20. It is also gloriously authentic, snapping and crackling with the sense of young people thinking out loud about who they are, freely voicing their experiences and perceptions of the world. Nobody, whatever their background, will agree with everything that’s said, but that’s the point. Homegrown opens up a proper grownup debate about attitudes and opinions that often go unspoken and remain hidden.
So why cancel the project? The reasons still remain unclear, although an email obtained under the Freedom of Information Act points to the fact that the NYT contacted the police about the project and that Roseby wrote to Arts Council England saying that the creators “failed to meet repeated requests for a complete chronological script to justify their extremist agenda”. It was suggested during the debate that the NYT only commissioned the piece as a tick-box exercise, and then ran scared of what was actually produced. Tom Slater of Spiked observed that the cultural stereotype of Muslims casts them as either “volatile or vulnerable,” treated as potential terrorists or a group of people who at all costs others must avoid offending. Academic Vron Ware suggested that the production fell foul of police anti-radicalisation programmes including Prevent and Channel.
Whatever the reasons, it’s difficult not to see it as an act of censorship, silencing a piece of theatre and the young people who helped make it. If there are two groups of people that theatre often fails to really give a voice to, it’s Muslims and young people. The Bush theatre’s artistic director Madani Younis was on a panel at the event and observed that, for all its talk about being radical, liberal and leftwing, British theatre is, in fact, predominantly a conservative, middle-class monoculture. He pointed to an honesty about the play in the way it articulates the experience of being a young Muslim in modern Britain, saying that there can never be real freedom of speech in a society in which there is no real equality.
The fact that Homegrown is now being published means that many more people will be able to read it. Perhaps some brave theatre organisation will support a staging. I hope so, because in sensitive and difficult times we need complex and challenging plays such as Homegrown. If our theatre culture runs scared and bows to censorship, it is failing artists and audiences and in danger of making itself a complete irrelevance.