Vivienne Franzman’s Mogadishu Directed by Matthew Dunster Lyric Hammersmith
<1> Vivienne Franzen’s first play, Mogadishu, which won the Bruntwood playwriting competition and the 2010 George Devine Award, has been hailed as ‘quite possibly the play of the year’ by Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph and has garnered good reviews in the mainstream press generally. Franzen explains in the programme notes that the title is ‘not because [the play] has anything to do with Somalia, but more that it’s a word that’s become synonymous with chaos’. The play transports us to the danger zone of a London comprehensive, which is evoked by an empty set encircled by wire fencing and iron gates.
<2> Franzen’s publicity emphasises that this is a report from the front line: ‘I know the world of school having spent twelve years teaching.’ And the battle lines in the play are immediately drawn up when Amanda, a white teacher in a London school, is pushed over by a black student called Jason after she tries to stop him attacking the nerdy Firat, a recent arrival from Turkey. Although Jason has a reputation as a troublemaker, Amanda decides not to report his assault because she wants to save him from the consequences of being permanently excluded. Her guilty good-nature backfires when Jason accuses Amanda of assault and racial abuse and bullies his gang into backing him up. Amanda is first suspended, then subjected to an official investigation; she is even threatened with visits from social services to see whether she is fit to bring up her fifteen-year-old daughter, Becky. Franzen suggests in the programme notes that false allegations against teachers are rife: ‘most teachers in urban schools know of at least one person who has experienced this.’
<3> Franzen’s play has a fantastic young cast: Malachi Kirby as Jason and Shannon Tarbet as Becky are outstanding; and Tara Hodge, Farshid Rokey, Tendayi Jembere, Hammed Animashaun and Savannah Gordon-Liburd, who play members of Jason’s gang, act with energy and conviction. The adult roles too are well portrayed: with Julia Ford as Amanda, Christian Dixon as Peter, Becky’s kindly black stepfather, and Fraser James as Ben, Jason’s authoritarian father.
<4> Another reason for the play’s success is that Mogadishu could not be more topical. It taps into current anxieties about discipline in urban comprehensives and asks whether the balance of power between students and teachers has swung too far against the staff. Teachers recently went on strike in Darwin Vale High School in Lancashire because of lack of support from the head teacher in dealing with aggressive and disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Staff claimed that although students were frequently out of control they were rarely excluded, and teachers have few other sanctions they can apply. At the 2010 Tory party conference, assistant head Katharine Birbalsingh caused a storm when she gave a speech stating that schools were letting their working-class children down. Instead of taking up their bad behaviour, schools made excuses for it, and made it worse; in the process, Birbalsingh claimed, schools were ‘keeping poor people poor’. She lost her job as a consequence but she became the darling of the Tory party. She is soon to open a flagship ‘free school’ and she has written a memoir, To Miss with Love. Whether or not Birbalsingh is another E. R. Braithwaite, her deliberate echoing of his memoir about teaching in the East End, To Sir with Love, tells us something: not much has changed since 1959. Despite the abolition of the 11+ exam and the introduction of the comprehensive system in the 1970s, schools still overwhelmingly fail working-class children.
<5> Tabloids in the 1950s ran scare stories about gang violence in urban schools, which were dubbed The Blackboard Jungle (after the American film). Now we have similar scare stories and Mogadishu, a title which not only reduces a capital city to a synonym for chaos, but brands urban schools and their multicultural students as dangerously out of control. (Franzen stipulates that most of Jason’s gang are black, Saif is Asian Muslim and Chloe is white.) In one of the play’s early scenes Amanda and her daughter Becky, who is at the same school, argue about Jason. Becky remembers Jason burning the school hamster in primary school and claims that her mother always makes excuses ‘for shits like him’. According to Becky the white-middle class kids are ‘seriously penalized just because we don’t communicate with “bare, sick and butterz”. … It’s just fucking assumed that I should have manners. That I should work hard, have aspirations and go to university, spend a gap year building irrigation systems in Mogadishu and know who Judi Dench is.’ The teenage Becky feels personally aggrieved but Franzen, despite the fact that her young black characters’ dialogue is peppered with bare (a lot), sick (cool) and butterz (ugly, fat), wants the audience to ask why schools aren’t encouraging them to go to university.
<6> Although Franzen is undoubtedly sincere about the way schools are failing black students by not expecting them to have aspirations, the play suffers from melodramatic plotting and characterisation. It simply isn’t plausible that an experienced teacher would persist in trying to protect a student even after the student has made false allegations against her. Amanda’s white liberal guilt is pursued to the point of masochism: she runs the risk of losing her job and devastating her daughter. As the conflict ratchets, Becky is shown with an array of kitchen knives with the clear suggestion that she has been pushed to the point of self-harming. Franzen tries to give both sides a credible and sympathetic back-story: we discover that Ben is so worried that his son will do badly at school he is completely overbearing. Also, because Ben has to work late as a security guard, he leaves Jason on his own in the evening. And if that weren’t enough it turns out that Jason’s mother committed suicide. As a consequence, Jason is acting the big man at school but he is still wetting the bed.
<7> Indeed Mogadishu has three suicides: Jason’s mother, and for balance, Becky’s father. After the allegations against Amanda have been proved to be false, and his father has exposed him as a bed-wetter to the ‘rudeboys’, Jason is last seen alone and about to hang himself. This feels like at least two suicides too many. After all, the play is about the failing school system, not the survivors of parental suicide. And to leave the audience with an image of a suicidal Jason turns him into that most pernicious of stereotypes: the figure of doomed black male youth.
<8> On several occasions it seems as if Franzen’s real subject here is not education or class but political correctness. There are moments when the dialogue aims to shock, not because of the dramatic conflict but because taboo words are being said aloud in a public space. There was a huge collective gasp on the night I saw Mogadishu as the daughter accuses her mother of defending Jason because the mother likes ‘black dick’. Aghhh! — the audience could hardly believe its ears. The justification for Becky’s outburst is presumably because she is upset by the fact that her mother has a new husband (although for most of the play Becky and stepfather seem to have a good and supportive relationship). But it does also seem as if the play is engineering the opportunity for the audience to hear these shocking words. In a similar way, the success of the American play Clybourne Park, which is enjoying a long run in the West End, seems in part to stem from the pleasurable horror audiences experience from hearing characters, whether black or white, telling racist jokes. Here, Jordan asks the rest of Jason’s gang: ‘What do you call two cannibals givin’ each other blow jobs?’ /Pause/ ‘Trust.’ (Part of the joke is that it takes them so long to get it.) While in Rufus Norris’s play a black character asks the other dinner guests: ‘Why are white women like Tampax?’ (Answers on a postcard please.) It is as if these plays are providing an opportunity for saying the unsayable: a kind of politically incorrect catharsis.
<9> After Mogadishu, someone has devised a Q&A session for the audience, which will presumably be used in future productions in schools. The audience don’t ask their own questions; instead there are set questions and the audience gets to vote Yes or No. ‘Does pushing a teacher warrant exclusion? Is Jason’s father too strict? Is there such a thing as unreachable children (sic)? Could there have been a different ending for Jason?’ Young audiences seem to engage with this process, despite the fact that it does not allow them to decide the terms of the debate for themselves. But whether a Mogadishu game show is really the best way to raise issues about education, or indeed to raise the expectations of working-class students, is highly debatable.
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Theatre Review: Vivienne Franzman’s Mogadishu Directed by Matthew Dunster Lyric Hammersmith’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2011/thomas.html. Accessed on [date of access].