Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann

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BBC Radio 3, 23 October 2011
Trawling through the Internet recently, I came across a piece by Matthew Dodd, Head of Speech and Presentation of Radio 3, extolling the virtues of Mogadishu, the debut play of former teacher Vivienne Franzmann. It proved a critical success at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, and helped Franzmann win the prestigious George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright. Dodd described it as a "hard-hitting story" of an inner city secondary school, possessing "an intimacy and a directness, a reliance on language," which could persuade audiences to "stop the washing up, the tidying and just listen."
I neither washed up nor tidied as I listened, but I admit that Dodd's comments were justly vindicated. Mogadishu is a powerful piece employing multiple perspectives on the same incident, to show how 'truth' becomes relative in an environment dominated by misunderstanding, prejudice and class conflict. Amanda, a white teacher (Candida Benson) is wrongfully accussed of racism by African-Caribbean student Jason (Malachi Kirby), who persuades his closest friends to back him up, despite knowing that what Jason claims is not actually true. Amanda makes the mistake of trusting in temporary head teacher Chris (Jonathan Guy Lewis), but discovers to her cost that he is driven by protocol into mounting a full-scale investigation involving the police and the social services. Her past life is put on public display, while questions are raised as to her suitability to continue in post, as well as her future as a parent, when it is revealed that her daughter Becky (Shannon Tarbett) experienced emotional trauma following the death of Amanda's first husband. Eventually the truth emerges and Amanda clears her name; but she has been subjected to such humiliation that she no longer wants to continue her chosen career.
While Franzmann invites us to reflect on the waste of a fundamentally good person's life, she wonders at the same time whether Amanda's fate was inevitable in an educational environment dominated by mistrust. Even the best intentions sometimes go to waste.
I listened to Mogadishu soon after listening to adaptations of E. R. Braithwaite's To Sir with Love and Paid Servant, semi-autobiographical accounts of how the author coped with living in 1950s London when racism was a daily fact of life for all non-white citizens. I wondered whether anything had really changed during the subsequent five decades: different communities seem as far apart as ever.
Sometimes the characterization seems a little stereotyped, as Franzmann contrasts the archetypal hard-working Turkish student Firat (Michael Karim) from a 'good' family, with the feckless African-Caribbean Jason, who was dominated by his unemployed father. Nonetheless she has a good ear for teenage dialogue, that contrasts starkly with the teachers' impeccably standard English. Perhaps this is another reason why teachers cannot connect with their students; they seldom listen to one another. It is all very well for Amanda to "reach out" to Jason, but how far does she actually understand what her students are saying, or make any attempt to consider their diverse social and racial backgrounds? Jason is not a "special case," as she blithely assumes, but an individual with his own particular responses to any given situation.
While set in the culture-specific world of a British secondary school, Mogadishu raises issues of fundamental concern to any educator involved with their students, irrespective of context. I congratulate Franzmann on her achievement.

To Sir with Love by E. R. Braithwaite

Matthew Dodd on Mogadishu