Martin Scorcese once said “Your job is to get your audience to care about your obsessions” and for me nothing could be more true of Javaad Alipoor’s much acclaimed fringe festival feature The Believers Are But Brothers. A play about political extremism, digital technology and male violence, it formed part of HOME’s Orbit Festival, a collection of innovative new work that seek to explore today’s world.
Many of the shows that were showcased at Orbit 2017 were straight from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Alipoor’s much vaunted political piece has all the hallmarks you’d expect from a fringe feature, in that it makes no apologies in challenging traditional forms of theatre.
The audience is asked upon arrival if they’d sign up to a Whatsapp group, which would be used within the production. I’d have to confess dear reader that I was somewhat skeptical of this, dismissing it as a mere fad. However, I was completely won over and it was one of many good things to come from the evening’s challenging introspection of male recruits in the world of ISIS.
I’m beginning to have a fondness for HOME’s Theatre 2, it’s their black box studio and events space complete with pull out bleacher style bench seating. It gives an intimate feel to most of the productions that I have had the pleasure of watching there. The Believers Are But Brothers is no different, with Alipoor waiting on stage playing some shoot em up video game whilst the audience takes its seats. It’s not long after that he turns around to face us and with one gesture of his phone we are conversing through the aforementioned Whatsapp group.
This is after all an examination of digital technology and what better way to display this than through the use of digital tech. And it works really well. The audience is engaged and Alipoor can communicate and make his points effectively through the medium. He has a wonderful irreverent style when he is in almost stand up mode making wry observations about the world of today through his social commentary.
The set is also an engaging bit of kit. Made up of what looks nothing more than a desk holding a games console and a computer, it is effective and the translucent screen allows for some stark visuals. This works really well at one point when Alipoor is playing a video game and there is an audio track voicing his thoughts. I thought the video game visuals had a disconnect, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is wonderfully in sync and shows the depth to Alipoor’s play that this level of detail is even considered.
Adding substance to all of this is Alipoor’s intention to weave together three stories that he has researched of young men recruited to the world of ISIS. It’s this ambition that I feel is ultimately the play’s undoing. You cannot coherently present attempts to deal with the radicalisation of young Muslims, touching upon such controversial topics as Syed Qutb, the Sunni-Shia dynamic, Gamergate and 4Chan within 60 minutes.
Whilst his observational commentary has the audience eating out of his proverbial hands, it cannot be said of his ability to become serious and up the dramatics by recounting the stories of the three ISIS recruits.
Furthermore there is no counterpoint to weigh down some of the points he makes. Right from the outset we are asked how many Muslims we think are currently in the UK and of those how many have been recruited to ISIS. Given that the answer is a few hundred, the prism that we view this under is predominantly of a darker hues. There is no light shed on the range of subjects that give it a broader context. The same can be said of his inability to examine the role of female ISIS recruits, because he is by his own admission a non practicing Shia muslim who had more luck in talking with Rabbis in the USA than with female Sunni ISIS members.
However, we should not forget that this is fringe theatre. Political fringe theatre at that. Ali has often said in his interviews that his production is more about the audience than him and whatever I think about the ambitious nature of Alipoor’s play, he has definitely put the audience at the heart of his piece.
This is no more joyously demonstrated than at the end where we are once again ushered to our phones but this time asked to utter the play’s final lines one by one by whomever. The chorus of voices with Alipoor sat silently on stage is perhaps this play’s greatest triumph and for that he should be commended.
Verdict: Ambitious, challenging and an innovative political play on extremism, technology and male violence, which takes audience participation to new heights
What: The Believers Are But Brothers by Javaad Alipoor
Where: HOME Manchester
When: 12th October 2017