Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The Believers Are But Brothers - Theatre Review

What: The Believers Are But Brothers
When: 22 - 25 May 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Written by: Javaad Alipoor
Directed by: Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley
Performed by: Javaad Alipoor and Luke Emery
Set and lighting by: Ben Pacey
Video by: Jack Offord
Sound by: Simon McCorry
Javaad Alipoor and Luke Emery
We don't get a lot of home grown modern multimedia theatre in Australia so we need organisations such as Arts House to import it sometimes and show us what is possible. One such example is The Believers Are But Brothers which forms part of the Melbourne Knowledge Week program.

The question of how terrorist group ISIS was able to radicalize the male population of so many Western nations has perplexed us for a decade and Alipoor, as a British Muslim youth himself, decided to try and delve into the on-line world of post-truth reality to help us understand what has been going on better. Originally his idea was to understand what was going on with the ISIS brides phenomenon but as a male he found no entree into that space so, as he admits at the start of the show, this show is a space for men and this story is about men. As a woman I was excited and intrigued to look closely at a space I am not allowed to be in...

One of the greatest tools used by ISIS for recruitment was social media and Alipoor takes us into a world of messaging apps, online chat rooms, gaming, and political campaigns. He makes no judgement on the use of these tools but in the end I think the strongest inference becomes anything is possible and truth is malleable so the experience of being online will be anything you choose to be a part of. It will be light and fluffy and fun if that is what you want, but be careful who you let into your friendship groups because anyone can be anything and the tone and direction can change in a heartbeat.

As an enlightened theatre maker of the 21st century Alipoor not only lets us keep our phones on, but he also requests we keep our ring tones on. The show uses What's App to interact with willing members of the audience and the cacophony of messages is meant to be a part of the soundscape of escalation layering over McCorry's urgent and dangerous compositions. It was interesting and frustrating to see Melbourne audiences have been so cowed and beaten by the traditionalist presenters most could not bring themselves to obey these requests or some significant others - particularly at the end - which are so vital to the composition of the entire production.

The What's App interaction was quite intrusive, even to avid users but this was one of the points of The Believers Are But Brothers. The incessant interruption of conversation, links, and commentary add to a sense of discomfort and disgruntlement which can easily be displaced and transferred depending on what messages you are constantly receiving and what doors are being opened for you.

In a non-linear approach and something resembling a lecture Alipoor shifts from a history of internet memes, the Trump election campaign and it's international resonance (Clive Palmer was not alone in wanting to 'Make The World Great' again), Gamer Gate, and the stories of three young men who were recruited to militancy. What did they have in common? In the end it seemed to be a sense of disempowerment, a non-belonging, a sense of persecution from within their social environment, and perhaps the need to disappear down a rabbit hole to find their mojo, their purpose, their community?

The Believers Are But Brothers is a painful show, a relentless show, and an exhausting show. It does have brief moments of humour but in the end it answers no questions just as it tells no lies. This is reality. Hyper-reality.

Designed by Pacey, the stage is set up with two men (Alipoor and Emery) with complex tech gaming set ups with multiple screens facing each other and playing 'Call Of Duty'. Between them is a large screen separating them theoretically in time and space. On a more meta level this screen also resembled the board for the game Battleship and war rooms and surveillance control stations, etc. We don't engage with Emery at all, and he doesn't engage with us - kind of. I suspect he was the one in control of the messages which at times arrive at a breakneck pace then suddenly silence to extended lulls before starting up again.

Alipoor, on the other hand, switches between speaking to us directly and intimately to proclaiming over a microphone and then turning his attention back to the computers and speaking to us through the large screen. All of this reinforces the multimedia barrage of messaging coming at youth and the impossibility for our minds and senses to find time to ponder and analyse and apply critical thought and reason to the ideas.

In many respects the information was too fast and furious to follow any one thread in the story too closely, but if you think this is what you are meant to be doing you are missing the point. You CAN'T do it. All you can do is sort through the bits that you can grab and piece a picture together that matches your understanding of the world and gives you a sense of meaning and control.

I suspect The Believers Are But Brothers is going to be a real challenge for audience members who do not engage with social media. It may come across as a meaningless barrage of everything they hate and don't understand. Perhaps this is an important point too?

For the majority I really suggest you download What's App for the show (it's free) and engage. You can always uninstall it after the show as I have.I also highly recommend following the instructions because if you don't, nobody in the room gets the experience the theatre making team have set out to create.

On the other hand, perhaps not complying is a statement in itself...? This very line of questioning is all part of the quandary Alipoor is commenting on and questioning and this is what makes the show so good - and so frustrating!

4.5 Stars

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