The Believers Are But Brothers opens at the Bush Theatre, after an award-winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. It tells the stories of three young men who, through their encounters online, become exposed to and enveloped by the murky waters of extremism. Two of the stories follow young British Muslims; Atif from the south coast who travels to Syria to join ISIS and Marwan, from the ‘post-industrial North’, who volunteers to join an aid convoy to Syria. The third story follows Ethan, a 21-year old white man from California, obsessed with 4Chan and the alt-right.
The Believers is undoubtedly timely though strangely one of the only pieces of theatre willing to tackle radicalisation in all forms head-on. But what makes the play truly unique, is its use of WhatsApp. Prior to the show-day, an email was sent out to attendees, encouraging them to sign up to a WhatsApp group to ‘enhance your experience’. On the outset, this appeared to be a small quirk of the show, perhaps even a gimmick. But as the play progressed, it became clear that being a member of the group was not only essential to follow the narrative, but allowed for the audience to engage with a piece of theatre in a completely new and exciting manner.
Billed as a one-man play, the production actually features two actors, both of whom are critical to it success. The first – the ‘Performer’ – is Jvaad Alipoor, the play’s writer and co-director. It is Alipoor alone that speaks to the audience and recites the stories of The Believers. The second – the ‘Operator’ – is a mute at a keyboard, lingering in the murk of cold-blue computer light at the back of the stage, played by Luke Emery. His role is operate the technical aspects of The Believers; which primarily involves sending WhatsApp messages to the Believers group.
It would be easy for this play to take aim at social media and the role of the internet in radicalising young men.and had the play been written by an outsider to internet culture looking in, I fear the play may have hit such a dud note.
Thankfully, Alipoor is as qualified a playwright for The Believers as one could hope for: by his own admission, a fan of encryption-based messaging and a young man who has connected with numerous new people online. Alipoor is also a British Muslim, frustrated by the media narrative surrounding his community, a narrative that he: a. does not recognise and b. is not allowed to partake in. He is a Bradford native, serving as Artistic Director for the Northern Lines theatre company that works with communities in the city who do not normally engage with theatre.
Alipoor delivers each story in segments, alternating his position on-stage for each and regularly breaking the fourth wall during transitions, to comment on the proceedings or provide background to the peculiarities of 4Chan. Although never quite acting per se, Alipoor is a truly excellent storyteller. His recounting of the characters’ tales is delivered with such emboldened conviction that each story takes on a life of its own, distinct from others not just in its content, but in the Alipoor who tells it. On their own, the stories are compelling. At the play’s climax, however, Alipoor ties the lives of Atif, Marwan, and Ethan together in a spectacular sequence fitting for such a bold piece of work.
Fitting too, that in a play that discusses meme culture and the serious issues of racism and misogyny that stem from it, the play is able to switch from humour to sombreness on a dime. Midway through the play, Alipoor asks the WhatsApp group, ‘What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on the internet?’. Cue the chorus of notification pings and audience chuckles as the accounts of witnessing strange porn flow in. Then, a user by the name of ‘Forthelulz’ chimes in, “Fucking whiney feminists….” he begins, and proceeds to message half a dozen grotesque paragraphs about rape and murder, drawing gasps from the crowd. Of course, the account is under the control of Emery and despite most, one imagines, in the crowd being aware of this it puts an immediate end to the audience’s messages and laughter.
So too, the play’s comparison of the radicalisation processes of ISIS and the alt-right is poignant, not because of their differences but because of their shocking similarity. To quote one of Alipoor’s online acquaintances, a gay Rabbi from Alabama, “If you’re a bigot when you pick the book up you’ll be a bigot when you put the book down.”
Interspersed between the stories and audience engagement, Alipoor delivers a fourth narrative; the conception of ISIS from its roots in 1950s Egypt, through to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin, and eventually its founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although these stories are delivered with the same distinctive Alipoor flair, they fail to add anything significant to the overall plot of the play, and time would have been better spent with the ‘brothers’.
In the play’s final act, Alipoor sends a speech to the WhatsApp group, one sentence at a time, the goal being that a random member of the audience will read the line aloud for the room to hear before the next is sent. Ironic, then, that in a play focusing entirely on young men, the vast majority of voices to read aloud are those of women.
In his Foreword to the play’s script, Madani Younis, Artistic Director at the Bush Theatre comments that “This is not an echo chamber play.” Sure, Alipoor has written a play focusing on two tiny subsections of society, but they’re two subsections that have a disproportionate impact on the news and content that everyone in the western world – men, women, Muslim, secular – engages with and reacts to online. And away from the play’s portrayal of the most extreme of extreme groups, it provides a commentary on the larger role of social media in society; its ability accelerate the transfer of ideas - good and bad – and bring total strangers together.
The theatre is normally a reserved environement; audiences sit in reverence and pitch blackness, honouring the work of the actors before them. The Believers shows that it is possible to appreciate and engage with a performance in spite of a cacophony of phones and constant flaring of screens. Never have I felt so connected to those around me during a play. Rare is it that a play can prove to be as thought-provoking for its means of delivery as its story, acting and message. Rarer still is it to find a play that, although not perfect, is unequivocally a must-see.
Where? Bush Theatre When? Until 10th Feb How Much? From £10