Schools seem to be having a theatrical moment this season and Vivienne Franzmann’s award-winning play Mogadishu will do nothing to diminish the idea of the playground as the most brutal and revealing of stages.
In an inner-London comprehensive, liberal teacher Amanda’s life begins to unravel when the school bully Jason pushes her to the ground. Unwilling to make an official complaint for fear of what will become of the troubled Jason, Amanda finds herself instead in the middle of a professional and personal nightmare when she is accused of a racist attack by Jason in order to protect himself.
Described by the head teacher as “Amanda in bloody Wonderland”, the naïve, idealist teacher’s journey is as frustrating as it is captivating to witness. As Amanda struggles to convince everyone around her that Jason cannot be blamed for his actions, her gobby but vulnerable daughter is determined to set things right, believing Jason is exonerated for being black. It makes for uncomfortable but provocative viewing.
Staged in the middle of an iron cage, the playground becomes an imposing prison. The cast comprises a group of young actors who portray the mouthy, piss-taking kids with such convincing realism that the audience flinches when all too recognisable bullying tactics are played out, racism breeding more hate and lies creating anxiety and fear.
While Franzmann has created an unflinchingly bleak look into The Crucible-type effect that lies can produce, she has sacrificed none of the humour that a group of teenagers offers to the stage. Jason’s clowning friends swear their way through the play in a rush of comic banter and ridiculous discussions about the point of France, types of ducks and rumours of teachers getting off with each other, often stealing scenes with one-liners that Franzmann must have stolen straight from the mouths of not so clean-talking babes.
But for all the humour, Mogadishu is nothing short of bleak, with suicide, self-mutilation and violence all rearing their ugliest of heads, and the breakdown of an innocent do-gooder at the centre of the unsettling drama. While a sudden conclusion ties up all the loose ends, Jason is left to succumb to an almost predetermined fate. Frustratingly apathetic to look at, but a simmering pot of rage underneath, the small glimpses of Jason’s home life the audience is allowed show him to be the broken mess that Amanda first tried to convince us of. Bullies, Franzmann shows us, are almost always the result of an even bigger bully waiting at home.