Inspiring: Malala Yousafzai speaks at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia on 21 October. Photo: Getty
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Hear their voices: a choral celebration of Malala Yousafzai

Young British composer James McCarthy and Pakistani writer Bina Shah have collaborated to produce Malala, a dramatic work for choir and orchestra that attempts to capture the spirit of her story.

Malala; A Child of Our Time 
Barbican, London EC2

When the gunman boarded a school bus in the district of Swat, Pakistan, in October 2012, he was trying to accomplish two things with a single act. By shooting Malala Yousafzai, he was trying to end the life of a girl who was standing out against the Taliban’s wishes. At the same time, the shooting was an attempt to stifle an idea. Because of her writing, Malala was a visible symbol – a girl trying to get an education in spite of everything terrible that was happening in her homeland. That ambition had to be snuffed out.

The Taliban failed on both counts. Malala survived the attack, is now recovered and is living safely with her family in Birmingham. Her existence as a symbol endures – even before she was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize this autumn, she was travelling the world (as much as her schooling permitted) to share her ideas about peace, dialogue and the right of girls to be educated.

Now, her story lives not just in words but in music, too. The young British composer James McCarthy and the Pakistani writer Bina Shah have collaborated to produce Malala, a dramatic work for choir and orchestra that attempts to capture the spirit of her story. The piece was premiered at the Barbican in London by the Crouch End Festival Chorus on 28 October and was preceded by an introduction from Malala herself, which was read by one of the schoolgirls singing in the chorus.

Perhaps surprisingly for a piece that is trying to embody such a range of emotions and issues, Malala is relatively simple. The instrumental accompaniment is cinematic in tone, all swooping strings and heart-tugging melodies with the odd burst of percussion. The large chorus sings in harmony but in a clear rhythm so the words of Shah’s libretto come across well. It was a challenge, McCarthy says, to avoid making the music too “childlike”, for although Malala Yousafzai was a child when these events took place, she is also a very strong young woman.

The piece starts by setting the scene in “Swat, the valley of flowers”, and then moves on to describe how the war came: “the pounding of guns and shouting of men”. And then the feminist subtext of Malala’s experience is explored: “They say that girls only need to know/How to cook, and clean, and sew/To get married at 12, to be someone’s wife.”

More than 100 girls from three different London schools were among the performers for this piece. Seeing them up onstage, concentrating fiercely on the conductor David Temple’s baton as they sang of Malala’s story, was an inspiring sight. It was hard not to be moved to see her message of inclusion, action and education enacted by fellow schoolgirls. The only part of the piece that jarred was the extended tenor solo in the middle – Andrew Staples has a strong voice but, given the context, it would have been much more welcome to hear a young woman’s solo featured.

For this programme, Malala was paired with Michael Tippett’s secular oratorio A Child of Our Time. The composer began work on it in 1938 in response to the Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews in Nazi Germany; it was first performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1944. It has since come to stand for the struggle of oppressed peoples everywhere. The piece shares the three-part structure of Handel’s Messiah and also draws inspiration from Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions, although crucially the Lutheran chorales are replaced by arrangements of African-American spirituals.

This wasn’t an outstanding rendition of the piece, by any means – the soloists didn’t blend very well and the pace was frustratingly slow at times. But as a foil to Mc­Carthy’s new work, it’s hard to think of anything better. If ever there was a child of our time, it is Malala.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June.

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge