In his neat jumper and jeans, Nicolas Kent doesn’t look much like a subversive. Yet this quietly spoken 71-year-old has probably provoked more serious thinking on controversial issues than any other theatre director working in Britain today. For almost 30 years, from his base as artistic director of the Tricycle theatre in north London, he turned a fierce spotlight on the issues of the moment, moulding the form of verbatim theatre, where the words of real people are spoken on stage, to examine how we live and who we are.
No subject was too big for the tiny theatre. He began by staging an edited version of public inquiries such as the one into the racially motivated killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 or Lord Hutton’s investigation of the events leading up to the death of Dr David Kelly, following a controversy related to the Iraq war. From using actual tribunals as the subject of drama, he progressed to commissioning his own inquiries. In 2004’s Guantánamo (the story of the British subjects imprisoned without trial) and The Riots (an investigation of the causes of the disturbances that swept Britain in 2011), he collaborated with the novelist Gillian Slovo to reveal the human stories behind the headlines.
Kent has forged a type of theatre that allows calm yet impassioned consideration of questions that get buried in the rush of the rolling news agenda. As Charles Spencer, former theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph and no lover of bien pensant lefties, remarked after watching Guantánamo: “The cumulative effect of Kent’s characteristically lucid, sober production is to create a feeling of concern that gradually rises to indignation.”
All that clear-eyed sobriety is now being brought to bear on perhaps Kent’s most challenging subject yet. Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, written by Slovo, and opening at the National Theatre on 9 April, looks at the organisation that calls itself Islamic State and the reasons some young westerners want to join its ranks.
“I am always curious about things that I don’t know enough about,” Kent explains. “And I felt I didn’t know enough about Isis. I didn’t know what the government policy was, what the American policy was and why people were radicalised. I rang up Gillian and said, ‘I don’t get this, why don’t we do a play about it’, and she was very enthusiastic.”
So was Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre. “I emailed him and got a reply within 24 hours,” says Kent, smiling. “When you get to a certain age as a director, you’re lucky if you get a reply within 24 months. It was rather wonderful.”
With the National on board, time was of the essence. In mid-July, Slovo began the interviews that form the basis of the play, talking to more than 40 people with a range of viewpoints, though not all of them are heard on stage. “The people I don’t use are often the people who have informed me of something and helped me ask the questions of the people that I do use,” she explains.
The process is deeply collaborative. Kent either attends the interviews or listens to the tapes afterwards. They seek the broadest base, allowing conflicting voices to be heard so that the end result is balanced. “Of course, the starting point is that Isis is a murderous organisation that is wrecking the lives mostly of Muslims in the areas where it is, but that it also wants to wreck our lives and our way of life,” says Slovo. “I think I began to understand more about why young people are attracted to it, not that there is one answer. And that is part of the understanding.”
Like Kent, Slovo – who grew up in South Africa where her parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First were leading anti-apartheid campaigners – is softly spoken yet committed. He credits her with using her novelist’s skills to shape a succession of verbatim transcripts into gripping drama. “That’s a real skill,” says Kent. “She wrote thrillers years ago, so she knows how to do that.”
“I worry about shaping something people would like to see,” Slovo acknowledges. “I don’t want to feed people information, I think that’s boring and switches you off. I want people to be involved in the play and I want them to come out and maybe not think the same thing as when they came in.”
The play covers an enormous amount of ground, and interviewees ranged from Helen Ball, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police and coordinator of counter-terrorism policing, through a cabinet office member who used to be in charge of the government’s Prevent programme, to Moazzam Begg, the former Guantánamo Bay detainee. His imprisonment was a key strand in Guantánamo, and Slovo and Kent had no problem finding interviewees in the Muslim community. “It built trust,” says Kent. “We have form, in a way. It has got much easier for me over the years because, after 12 or so plays, people are willing to talk to us and to trust us.” Participants whose words are cut but not altered are always shown a transcript of what they have said and allowed to make any changes. “But they never do,” Kent says.
Yet, despite this, the families of those who had left the UK to join Isis would not be interviewed. “Some of the press have been very punitive towards these people and they feel their words will be badly used,” says Slovo. “And young Muslims are very scared at the moment, scared that their words will be taken wrongly, that they will be fingered when they haven’t done anything, that if they say something the police will come knocking at their door and ask them to implicate someone else.”
Eventually, they found a support group of mothers in Belgium who were prepared to speak, partly to warn other mothers about what could happen inside perfectly normal and seemingly happy families. When violent jihadism made Brussels its target, the relevance of their testimony became more pointed.
“Because the awful things that Isis does stick in our minds, we don’t quite understand that there is an appeal to young people that is not just murderous but is utopian,” Slovo explains. “Part of the reason for them being attracted to Isis is that they want to build this community that they feel will give them a better place, a more meaningful place, than the place they have in England.”
There are two conflicting risks in putting such explanations on the stage of the National Theatre. The first is that it is simply too dangerous, in a time of political tension, to explore these ideas. “I do have anxieties but that is what makes the project worth doing,” says Slovo. “You have to think very carefully about your own prejudices and not sticking them on the stage. So I think that kind of anxiety is good.”
The other possibility is that their work will only preach to the converted – that although the National is making every effort to encourage a diverse audience to see Another World, in the end it will reach only those ready to accept its conclusions. Slovo points out that everybody already has a view on the subject – what is missing is the facts. “It is very easy to have an opinion on this but it’s mind-expanding to be able to sit in a theatre for 90 minutes while somebody lays out some of the important elements of the debate.”
Kent’s previous work has made politicians and thinkers sit up and take notice. At a time when the emphasis is on quick debate and instant reaction, this serious form of investigation – the equivalent, as he points out, in terms of length, of 40 long reads in a newspaper – is a way of pausing to take stock.
“What we are doing is an inquiry into Isis,” he says. “It works like a very good documentary. Except that you can’t go and boil a kettle and have a coffee in the middle – you have to concentrate. It is an immersive, communal experience. People laugh, they cry, they get angry.”
What does he hope people will learn? “I hope people will understand that a knee-jerk reaction is completely the wrong reaction. If we are repressive about our human rights, if we are phobic about Islam, if we are going to stop the way we live, we are playing into Isis’s hands – and that is a real worry.”
• Another World opens at the National Theatre, London SE1, on 9 April.
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