Directors and actors take to open letter to question National Youth Theatre’s cancellation of Homegrown

Following the controversial cancellation of the National Youth Theatre production Homegrown amid concerns it would promote radicalisation, theatre directors, actors and writers have taken to an open letter to express their disappointment and confusion.

The letter, published in the Times, is part of an ongoing battle to get to the root of the sudden cancellation of a play intended to break down the barriers of censorship. As explored in two previous Teaching Drama articles (4 June and 18 August), the play, which explored the reasons behind homegrown radicalisation, was due to open on 12 August, but was pulled just days before by NYT.

Director Nadia Latif and writer Omar El-Khairy had been forced to relocate the production after Tower Hamlets council informed them the school venue was inappropriately close to the Bethnal Green school attended by Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, who are thought to have fled to Syria to become jihadi brides earlier this year. Following that, Latif and El-Khairy were warned that Metropolitan Police were considering planting plain clothed officers in the audience, though this is denied by the Met.

The open letter, which can be seen below, is the beginning of a larger argument against theatre censorship, a subject we will be exploring in our Autumn 2 edition of Teaching Drama.

Why was the National Youth Theatre’s production of Homegrown, a new play about radicalisation, suddenly cancelled?

Sir, The abrupt cancellation of the National Youth Theatre’s production of Homegrown is a troubling moment for British theatre and freedom of expression. The play seeks to examine radicalisation and disaffection among British youth. Its cancellation serves only to shut down conversation on these important issues. We fear that government policy in response to extremism may be creating a culture of caution in the arts.

We are deeply concerned by reports that the NYT may have been put under external pressure to change the location and then cancel the production. Police, local authorities and arts organisations have a duty to respect and protect freedom of expression — even, and most especially, where they disagree with the message or find it controversial.

We urge the NYT to give a full account of what led to the decision, and hope that a way can be found to stage it so that the young voices involved can be heard and the production can be judged on its merits.

Maureen Freely, president, English PEN

Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive, Index on Censorship

Jo Glanville, director, English PEN

Shami Chakrabarti, director, Liberty

Anish Kapoor, artist

Anneliese Davidsen, executive director, Unicorn Theatre

Christopher Haydon, artistic director, Gate Theatre

Sir David Hare, playwright

David Lan, artistic director, Young Vic

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, playwright

Heydon Prowse, actor

Jolyon Rubinstein, actor

Howard Brenton, playwright

Josie Rourke, artistic director, Donmar Warehouse

Lorne Campbell, artistic director, Northern Stage

Monica Ali, writer

David Aaronovitch, chair, Index on Censorship

Nell Leyshon, playwright

Nick Williams, executive director, Actors Touring Company

Ramin Gray, artistic director, Actors Touring Company

Sabrina Mahfouz, playwright

Sarah Frankcom, artistic director, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester

National Youth Theatre pulls controversial ISIS play at last minute

A brand new play, due to open on 12 August, was pulled by the National Youth Theatre just days before the first night. Homegrown, which followed the lives of three Bethnal Green girls believed to have left school to travel to Syria in February, was directed by Nadia Latif and written by Omar El-Khairy, both of whom claim NYT were aware of the subject of the play from the start.

The cast of Homegrown were distraught by the news (Credit: Helen Maybanks/National Youth Theatre)

The cast of Homegrown were distraught by the news (Credit: Helen Maybanks/National Youth Theatre)

The production, which was to feature a 112-strong cast between the ages of 15 and 25, was originally supposed to be performed at Raines Foundation Upper School, less than a mile from the Bethnal Green school attended by Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, the three girls said to have journeyed to Syria to become jihadi brides.

Latif and El-Khairy experienced their first hurdle in June when they were forced to relocate to UCL academy in Swiss Cottage after Tower Hamlets council expressed concern that the subject matter might be ‘insensitive.’ A spokeswoman for the council added: ‘The school was not aware of the subject of the play when they agreed to lease the premises. Once they became aware, they decided that it would not be appropriate to rent their premises to the National Youth Theatre.’

Following the move, which affected the site-specific nature of the play, Latif and El-Khairy claimed that in late July they were warned that Metropolitan Police wanted to see a copy of the script and were considering planting plain clothed officers in the audience. The proposition came as a shock to the pair, with El-Khairy adding that ‘we don’t know where that came from or who led the conversation.’ Conversely, the Metropolitan Police deny any involvement with the play or intended venue.
Despite previous difficulties, the cast and crew were looking forward to a ‘kaleidoscopic exploration of the treatment of homegrown radicalisation,’ as put by Latif, but the pair were emailed by NYT on the Thursday before it was due to open and the cast were informed on the Friday morning.

While NYT has refused to comment on censorship, El-Khairy said: ‘Voices have been silenced here, there is no doubt about that and I just feel like in order to make the decision to cancel it, something very extreme must have happened.’ Some of the young actors scheduled to star in the show took to social media to voice their distress, with David Hall Tweeting, ‘I don’t know how anything can ever change when we are too scared to say the things that need to be said.’

You can view our previous story about the release of Homegrown here: