It came across to me as a form of reverse psychology. “Please keep your phone on and on loud for the WhatsApp group. Ask a member of staff if you have not been added or need any assistance.” So reads the ‘front of house information’ sheet given to patrons at The Believers Are But Brothers, and reiterated at the start of the show. It took me a little by surprise at first, but then, if so many performances of so many productions these days have an element of disturbance from electronic devices buzzing or ringing or pinging or vibrating (and so on), why not go completely the other way and ask everyone to have their phones out and on? Interestingly, the number of phones out seemed to decrease as the show continued, and if just one person understands as a result of this experience that the light from a mobile is just as distracting in a dark theatre auditorium as the sound whilst a performance is in progress, that can only be a good thing.
And yet, that isn’t, in the end, what the show is really about. It’s about, to steal a line from the author’s website, “a play about political extremism, digital technology and male violence”. Performer – that’s what the cast list says – ‘Performer’ (Javaad Alipoor), shares a stage with ‘Operator’ (Luke Emery). The latter is a non-speaking part, and the show is a relatively brief but nonetheless intriguing overview of what is happening with the latest generation of Angry Young Men. The development and research into the show is evident within the play itself. It seems, for instance, the production wanted to show the balance of online photos and videos. That is to say, pro-ISIS ‘memes’ and multimedia would have been shown alongside what the audience does see, both projected and on the WhatsApp group, but for the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011 and the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
Fair enough: who wouldn’t want to avoid prosecution? But why yet another show about men, particularly in these times of #MeToo and #TimesUp? Because, as Alipoor explains, “A man who’s from a Shia background, who doesn’t really practice [Islam], couldn’t really get anywhere trying to talk to young women who joined a violent Sunni extremist group and clearly had a lot invested in a kind of mystical femininity which keeps them from being approached by any old bloke on Twitter.” It is difficult to avoid a wry smile at some of the stories that follow, especially about those who go out to fight but are astonished to find the creature comforts of home are not to found in the theatre of war.
There’s a moment in which Alipoor’s Performer stops performing, and returns to the computer game he was playing as the audience was filing in before the show started. As this happens, a video of Alipoor speaking is played. If the actor is no longer engaged with the live theatre experience, then why should I be? I get the wider point being made, though – this is what people do at home. The television is on but they are online doing something else at the same time. Here, the amount of multimedia happening at once makes for a show that is almost too frenetic. The jingle of the BBC News app could be heard throughout the auditorium at one point, with some ‘Breaking News’ about tariffs on Bombardier aircraft being imported to the USA. Terrorism, planes and America – how spookily topical.
The superfluous mixes in with the significant. Proceedings are almost interrupted as titters spread quickly. Someone has posted to the WhatsApp group, “Anyone else thinking about how fit Javaad is?” For the record, a few admitted by reply that they did. The show provides a comprehensive overview of some of the problems faced by the world in which we live today, without (as far as I can recall) a single solution. I couldn’t help thinking there was a missed opportunity to at least invite the audience, using WhatsApp, to suggest ways forward. Overall, however, it’s a compelling show, unflinchingly bold in its subject matter yet warm and welcoming in its delivery.
Review by Chris Omaweng
We live in a time where old orders are collapsing: from the postcolonial nation states of the Middle East, to the EU and the American election. Through it all, tech-savvy and extremist groups rip up political certainties.
Amidst this, a generation of young men find themselves burning with resentment, without the money, power and sex they think they deserve. This crisis of masculinity leads them into an online world where fantasy, violence and reality collide.
The Believers Are But Brothers envelops its audience in this digital realm, exploring the blurry and complex world of extremists, journalists and fantasists in an electronic maze of meme culture, 4chan, the alt-right and ISIS. This bold one-man show weaves together their stories to reveal a vast web of resentment, violence and power just one click away.
Javaad Alipoor presents
THE BELIEVERS ARE BUT BROTHERS written and performed by Javaad Alipoor
Co-directed by Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley
Stage and Lighting Design by Ben Pacey
Dramaturgy by Chris Thorpe
Sound Design by Simon McCrorry
Video Design by Jack Offord and Adam Radolinski
Produced by Luke Emery
Associate Director Natalie Diddams
Assistant Director Heather Knudtsen
24 January – 10 February 2018
at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, W12 8LJ