Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Suzann McLean: Extremism

By | Published on Friday 25 October 2019

Opening this week at the brilliant Theatre Peckham is a revival of Anders Lustgarten’s ‘Extremism’, first written for the National Theatre Connections Festival in 2017. It’s a play that covers many themes, but in particular the notion of ‘radicalisation’ and attempts by governments to deal with it.

To find out more about the play, and her decision to stage the piece, I spoke to the show’s director, Theatre Peckham AD Suzann McLean.

CM: Can you start by telling us what happens in ‘Extremism’? What story does it tell and what characters does it involve?
SM: Set in a classroom, the story unfolds after one of the pupils has been taken away under the guidelines of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy ‘Prevent’, because the teacher believes them to be demonstrating signs of radicalisation. Left alone in the classroom, the rest of the classmates try to come to terms with what’s happened. The situation soon becomes a melting pot for explosive opinions and actions. Surprise turns to suspicion, suspicion turns to fear, fear turns to accusation and accusation turns to violence.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
SM: The play deals with many challenges facing young people in today’s society; peer pressure, consent, friendship, racism, and not least a growing area of concern, radicalisation. With references to real-life incidents surrounding the Prevent policy, the effects of sensationalist tabloid journalism, the over-policing of British Muslims, and the omnipresence of global terror.

CM: What does the play have to say politically? Is it designed to raise awareness? 
SM: The play offers society a window into the terrifying way that modern politics, and the way we deal with terrorism, can be interpreted by and influence our children.

In this age of social media, opinion as fact journalism and instant publishing, it is more important than ever to furnish our young people with the tools through which they can make well considered judgements, forming their own opinions based on their own values rather than what they are told to believe.
CM: What made you want to stage the play? What do you like about it? 
SM: Anders is such a brilliant playwright and the subject matter is current and vital. The play forces us to question stereotypes and the use of negative language surrounding identity based on race or religion. 

I feel that seeing fictional portrayals of bullying at its most basic – sometimes referred to as ‘banter’ – as well as at its worst we will see drama being utilised as a medium for social change. Themes emerge around what it means to be in the group, or to be an outsider. As the pressure to conform becomes sinister, the explosion into violence is raw and frightening.

It’s a gripping play that warrants its revival for audiences, especially in Southwark which has the youngest and most diverse demographic in London. I hope that this play will serve as one anti-bullying strategy among the many others in an effort to build a truly cohesive, inclusive and safe society for all.

We’ll also be hosting workshops exploring the themes in the play as well as running Conversation Stations after the performances for those who want to have their voice heard. 
CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
SM: Anders Lustgarten is an award-winning playwright. His idea for the play came from the fact that we live in the most monitored and observed society in living history. The way in which the government and those in power want to keep us all under surveillance was a subject Anders was keen to explore in this short play, first written for the National Theatre Connections Festival in 2017. He believes it is still as relevant now, and even more so than ever before.

CM: Can you tell us about your cast?
SM: We have ten very individual, power-house, young actors. This play is an opportunity for them to gain valuable experiences to take them to the next level in the careers as creatives and performers.

The moral questions that are presented within this play are the moral questions which face young people on a daily basis, somewhat magnified for the purposes of drama. The cast brilliantly own the pace and naturalism to pull the audience back into the classroom environment.

Every character stands out, every line hooks you into the action, and every emotion is unnervingly real.

CM: How are things going at Theatre Peckham? What else do you have coming up in November at the venue?
SM: It’s a huge privilege to work with so many aspiring young people at this pioneering learning theatre. It’s been just over a year since I joined and the programme is developing apace.

We have a couple of one-nighters before ‘Extremism’. ‘The Red Dress’, a gospel Music production which features an all-female cast and tells the story of love, betrayal and pain, whilst making you want to sing and laugh.

And we also welcome TEDxPeckham which is always a popular platform for exchanging ideas with our local audiences. This year’s provocation is ‘Far From Home’.

CM: Do you have a Christmas show coming up?
SM: Yes, in true Theatre Peckham style we’re staging our annual festive pantomime in a world where adults learn from the much wiser child characters. Set in inner-city London, our version of ‘Jack and The Beanstalk’ will be channelling influences from the 80s with a current twist.

Our cast includes students from Theatre Peckham’s Academy as well as professional actors. We’ve got a classic dame played by the wonderful Michael Bertenshaw, and new characters including Shot The Poet, a local spoken word artist. 

CM: What plans do you have for the venue in the new year?
SM: To present the finest theatre for young audiences. A whole range of performances will be presented, including theatre, music, spoken-word, community events, panto and screenings.

We open our doors to the community welcoming families and young people into our foyer area during the day to chat with friends or get some work done!

We start the year with a brilliant Afro-futurism event on 4 Jan 2020, and in April we’ll be the London home for the Pilot Theatre’s production of ‘Crongton Knights’ by award winning novelist Alex Wheatle.

‘Extremism’ is on at Theatre Peckham from 5-23 Nov. See this page here to book your tickets.

LINKS: | |