Javaad Alipoor is not simply the lead actor in The Believers Are But Brothers, which plays at The Bush theatre this season. He is a writer, director, and theatre maker, who’s production won the Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017.
When you get an email asking you to submit your phone number so that you can be added to a WhatsApp group, and then you’re asked to leave your phone on and on loud throughout the performance – something seems unconventional, if not a little bizarre.
Leaving your phone on, on loud, and on your lap, during a performance seems all sorts of wrong. It is probably also quite disconcerting for those people behind orchestrating some of the show via WhatsApp, given that anything could happen. It is clear that everyone is on the same page who is involved in this production, down to the front of house staff at the Bush Theatre – being added to the WhatsApp group and then the demolition of the group post-show was smooth and easy, which is critical in a piece which, while participation is ‘not compulsory’, some of the communication is absent without the technology.
The most unusual thing about the use of technology in this production though, is perhaps that this production does something which many do not manage – it incorporates technology without the ‘let’s-put-a-smartphone-in-to-modernise-it’ or ‘social-media-is-awful’ cliché. It discusses Memes, incorporates the audience’s own experience of the internet, and it delves head first into the ‘we know this must happen but we choose to ignore it’ elements of the backstreets of the online world. Ben Pacey has done an excellent job navigating the physical set and the virtual, on screen set – the combination is exciting and holds the audiences’ attention at every moment.
The events discussed are ones which most of the audience know – 9/11, the Finsbury Park Mosque attack, the death of Jo Cox – amongst many others – described and explored perpendicular to events which have not traditionally made the mainstream media.
Honestly – if you miss anything, this play could lose you in moments, though it is usually quite easy to pick back up again. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but there is work to be done on the practicalities of whether the audience are checking WhatsApp or listening to the wonderfully articulated stories of Alipoor – it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether to give your full attention to the monologue or to the WhatsApp group – particularly when one audience member decided to point out that they were concentrating more on ‘how fit Javaad is’ than actually listening to what he was saying. Always a risk, and very amusing, but perfectly handled on stage.
There is also a strange and slightly underdeveloped contrast between the different roles which Javaad Alipoor plays on stage and it can become confusing at times. Having said that, this show knows exactly what it is. It knows where it falls between documentary, research, play, comedy and education and is a wonderful fusion of all of those things.
This is a brilliant, interesting and informative production – and one which anyone interested in modern internet culture, race, and alt-right extremism should definitely catch. It plays at the Bush theatre until 10th February and tickets are from just £10.
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