Leslie Manasseh talks to writer Anders Lustgarten and director Suzann McLean about their new play that explores an increasingly contentious issue
Ten traumatised students are alone in a classroom. A classmate has just been removed by the teacher and taken to the police under a provision of the Prevent programme – part of the government’s counter terrorism strategy.
Left to their own devices, the students react to what has just happened and the classroom steadily descends into paranoia, division and violence.
Originally commissioned by the National Theatre as part of its Connections Programme for young audiences, Extremism is a raw and unsettling glimpse into the world of young people under pressure and how they try to cope with an increasingly polarised society. Each character represents a different way of using and interpreting the same information and reacting to the same experience.
The play explores what happens when simmering tensions are brought to the surface by a shocking event and touches on friendship, group dynamics, racism, bullying, the power of social media and attitudes to authority.
Intended as a defence against terrorism, Prevent encourages and requires individuals in positions of authority to report on others whom they feel might harbour terrorist sympathies or be susceptible to radicalisation.
Anders Lustgarten is unashamedly critical of this initiative which, he says, encourages spying and surveillance by an overbearing state and disproportionately targets Muslim communities.
He points out that in the three years to March 2018, more than 21,000 people were referred to the police – most of whom were teenagers. His play brings to life the trauma which lies behind these figures.
This a political theatre on a very topical subject – for example, Lambeth is a priority area under the Prevent strategy so Prevent teams will have been at work in Brixton and the issue has been discussed in local community forums.
The writer’s aim is to expose the damage to young people from a regime which he believes does not trust them and is wedded to “ubiquitous surveillance”.
The play is a hard-hitting and challenging experience. But Lustgarten also wants the audience to enjoy it. So there is humour and hope, and the notion that human beings can overcome trauma and act together to make a difference for the better.
Suzann McLean believes that the play will give people a better understanding of young people and the world they inhabit and the pressures they face.
She thinks there are positive lessons for all age groups. She also wants to make the audience feel part of the drama. She puts it very simply; “Come and see the play and live in the classroom”.
Extremism runs from 5 to 23 November at Theatre Peckham, 221 Havil Street, SE5 7SD. Tickets £12/10. For more information see www.theatrepeckham.co.uk or call 020 7708 5401