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Theatre review Light on the terrifying darkness of the digital era

RUBY FISHER sees an unsettling drama exploring the growing connections between extremism and the underbelly of the internet

The Believers Are But Brothers

Bush Theatre, London

 

PRE-SHOW, a cornucopia of screens, headsets and consoles surround actor Javaad Alipoor at the Bush, as he navigates his way through a game of Call of Duty. The rattle of assault rifles, exploding grenades and the occasional scream of terror indicate that he's just racked up another kill.

 

An usher informs us that much of the show will take place on a Whatsapp group. Leave it on, she urges, it will enhance the experience.

 

So this ambitious solo piece is as as much an immersive digital experience as it is a work of live theatre with Alipoor, who co-directs with Kirsty Housley, presenting a fragmented thesis on political extremism, frustrated masculinity and what happens when they collide over the internet.

 

From the Tahrir Square “revolution” to Isis on Telegram, the show embraces an entire cosmos of complex, interconnected issues, seemingly prioritising breadth over detail.

 

It's an enormous story that defines the emergence of the digital age and, if this show proves anything, it is that, if you’ve never heard of the darknet, are surprised by the idea of the Taliban on Telegram or if you still believe that what happens online stays online, you are living on its outermost perimeter.

 

It's a world in which reason and relativity start to decay as rapidly as the bodies of those malcontented young men who waste away in the glow of their computer screens.

 

The narrative of The Believers references three ordinary people, Atif and Marwan, two young British Muslims, and Ethan, a white middle-class American, all of whom find their lives inexorably altered when they happen upon the same YouTube video.
 

The maw of the darknet swallows them whole and we're plunged into an arena where violent images, rape videos and hate speech dominate, while Pepe the Frog reigns supreme. The dramatic text, as well as memes, factoids and “lols,” is often delivered via Whatsapp, a device at its most impactful when threatening messages start to appear in the group feed.
 

The shock is palpable in the audience and suddenly the digital world doesn’t seem so far away. As Alipoor points out, the tendrils of the internet are ever reaching out from behind the screens in our pockets, pulling at the threads of our social DNA. All it takes is our curiosity and our permission.

 

Alipoor's is an intelligent, earnest and well-researched performance, often drawing on aspects of his own life as a young Muslim speaking out in a cultural space dominated by white privilege and presumption.

 

The play is at times poetic, at others didactic and, at all times, diffuse. Much like the internet itself, it's about everything and nothing and, if it falls short dramatically of the Herculean task set before it, those theatrical failings come to pale in comparison to the importance of its discussion.

 

Go and see this show. If it doesn’t leave you unsettled, I’ll delete my Facebook account.

 

Runs until February 10, box office: bushtheatre.co.uk

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