The media likes things to be easy. Everything is black or white. You’re a Brexiteer or a Remainer. Jeremy Corbyn is an inspired leader or a closet Trot, etc. Obviously, this approach ignores the shades of grey that are between the two extremes and sometimes leads to very skewed reporting. Still, there are some absolutes in the world and in the war against the Caliphate, it’s really easy. ISIS is bad and everyone that fights them – especially our brave troops – is good, simples! Let that be your starting point as you head into the Vault Festival for Wound Up Theatre’s one-act play Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy.
The show started when we entered the performance space. There, in the centre of the room surrounded by the audience – was a man in army uniform tied to a stake as the music of Queen blasted out. This is Dean (Matthew Greenhough) a soldier who made a mistake and is now being held somewhere in Iraq – possibly he is rather disorientated as to how long he’s been held or where he’s been moved to – by ISIS. This is not a good situation for a member of the British army to be in, but Dean is a Leeds’ lad and they make them tough up there. Whilst being tied, he sings to himself – and the Queen song ‘I Want To Break Free’ is one of his favourites. Into his cell comes a tall ISIS guard (Elliot Liburd). Dressed head to toe in black and with a pistol at his hip, he brings some bread and water for the prisoner, who roundly abuses his guard not realising, until it is too late, that the guard is actually British. As the play progresses, the two young men form an uneasy acquaintanceship – each always being aware of the position of the other – which develops into banter and laughter interspersed with dogma and justification on both sides.
Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy is a totally surprising piece of theatre. Just the title alone gives the suggestion that this is not going to be your average piece – let’s be honest, ISIS are not renowned for their sense of humour. And the play really is funny. Writer Matthew Greenhough has a wicked sense of humour which really fits in with the sort of gallows humour found in many walks of life but definitely among the members of the armed forces. Both Dean and his ISIS guard (nicknamed Danny by the soldier) are young and, at times full of it. They both have their certainties and they both occasionally want to outdo each other in their boasting. In ‘normal’ life, these two would probably end up best of friends but in Iraq, they are implacable enemies with irreconcilable differences in their lives and view of the world. By the end of the seventy-five minutes run time, it is obvious that what unites them far outweighs what divides them and as the two head to the ending – one that was surprising but made perfect sense – you couldn’t help but wonder how these two street smart, gents had got themselves into the position they were in. Although written in 2015 – when ISIS were looking very dangerous – the play hasn’t really lost any of its relevance eight years later. ISIS are still a menace, British troops are still involved in a war that few understand and even fewer want to participate in and Meal Deals at British railway stations are still heavily overpriced.
Both actors bring their characters out well and there is enough movement from them so that all of the audience get to see and hear what’s going on. My one issue was that, whilst the Vault was a perfect location for a secret prison, the acoustics – with their massive echoes – occasionally made it difficult to fully hear what was being said. Jonny Kelly’s direction was excellent and the very physical beating scenes looked extremely realistic from where I was sitting.
So what was my final impression of Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy? This really is a powerful, deep and meaningful play that really makes you think. Both Dean and ‘Danny’ have their reasons to be where they are. To both of them, and to me standing apart watching them, these reasons make sense – whether I agree with them or not. I’m not going to say this play changed my ultimate point of view about the terror that ISIS have created, but it has reminded me that whilst it is easy from the comfort of my London home to sit in judgement on The Jihadist ‘Beatles’ and their like but, in reality, I know nothing of them and ultimately who am I to judge? Going by the reaction of some of the audience as they left, I don’t think I’m the only one that was affected by Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy – a fascinating piece of theatre at its best.
Review by Terry Eastham
Dean joined the Army, Danny joined the Islamic State. Bismillah! is their time together as captive and guard.
Set in 2015 in a basement in Northern Iraq, and described as ‘bold and thought-provoking’ by Mark Lawson in the
Guardian, Bismillah! uses humour and compassion to approach an incredibly vital discussion around the experiences of disenfranchised young people in modern Britain.
This hilarious and heartbreaking production examines the impact of racial, social, economic and religious politics on youth in society. It’s a show which tackles huge contemporary issues: from rising social tensions and the fall out of interventionist foreign policies to working in Weatherspoons and the ever-rising price of a standard meal deal.
WRITTEN BY Matthew Greenhough
DIRECTED BY Jonny Kelly
PRODUCER Sofi Berenger
Matthew Greenhough and Elliot Liburd
28 Feb — 04 Mar 21:00