THE BLOG

Empathy and the Decision to Postpone 'Homegrown'

20/08/2015 17:48 BST | Updated 20/08/2016 10:59 BST

"I feel we need to start a conversation."

That was the guiding thought behind my decision to start a Change.org petition to reinstate Homegrown, a National Youth Theatre production that was due to be staged in London this month. The play would have explored the motivations of people, particularly young people, who abscond to join Islamic State.

The decision by the NYT to postpone the play has unleashed a firestorm of debate within the artistic community about censorship. But this is about more than the arts - it's about the kind of Britain that we want to be.

As I thought about the decision to postpone the play, I thought about all the young actors and actresses who will be denied the opportunity to test themselves against the more challenging material.

I thought about what the arts would look like in the future, if it was not allowed to provoke, to challenge, to question.

In acting (and I'm an actor myself), we're often encouraged to view single events through a wider lens. Acting is often about stepping inside the shoes of another.

And what has hit me from the responses to the petition is how many people, in signing their support for this play, want to do just that. They want to step inside the shoes of the schoolgirls.

They want to understand what would drive someone to want to join Islamic State. Not out of any desire to punish an ideology or people, or to provoke conflict - they simply wish to understand.

They want to know what causes people to reject British values - the values we take for granted - so comprehensively that they would go and join a murderous cult opposed to British values.

The sentiment resonates with people: how on earth did it come to this?

It's true: in an ideal world, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The people of the East End of London have stood together to reject violent extremism before, and will do so again.

But today, we're faced with a situation where every half term schoolgirls, and in some cases entire families are travelling to Syria and joining Islamic State.

The news story may have moved on, but it's a far bigger story than the number of people queued up in Calais risking their lives to get to Britain.

That we have failed so comprehensively to allow the people involved to feel like Britain is a home for them should be a source of deep shame for everyone involved. It asks awkward questions of us as a people.

There's a popular fallacy that if you leave beliefs such as this unexplored; if you brush them under the carpet, they will somehow disappear. That the underlying issues will resolve themselves if the unsayable is left unsaid.

But we know this isn't true. We know that bullying and intimidation and resentment are all allowed to fester when good people stand by and abdicate their responsibilities.

As a country, we are grown up enough to have this conversation. We can handle, and face down, the cold hard slap in the face that violent extremism presents.

We're brave enough to understand the causes, as well as the consequences of extremism. We're ready to have that debate around every street, every dinner table, and every theatre lobby.

We need plays like Homegrown, and we need writers and directors as brave as Nadia Latif and Omar El-Khairy to write and produce them.

The moment we stop having these conversations, we lose our ability to empathise, and that's not just bad for the acting community, it's bad for British society as a whole.