ROBERT STEVENS reviews Bismillah! at the VAULT Festival.
The Vaults’ location underneath Waterloo Station already sets the scene for Bismallah!. The play takes place in an underground prison at an ISIS military base, where a British soldier talks to his executioner, a British jihadi who defected from God’s own country to start a nation state of his own. It is both brilliantly acted and directed, despite coming to a rather conservative conclusion about the larger political aims of terrorists.
Bismallah! discusses common portrayals of the jihadist revolution and shows how radical opinions seem absurd when brought back to somewhere we know. The British soldier is from the North, the Jihadi originally hails from London, and the West/Radical Muslim divide seems farcical when compared to Leeds versus London. The two young men quickly realise how the political rhetoric they subscribe to is far bigger than either of them, and that it’s almost impossible to argue with conviction about forces far larger than themselves.
This is the strongest conclusion that the play draws: these two men, finding themselves in a deeply political situation yet both claiming impartiality, realise that they are small, rather ignorant cogs swept up by a much larger machine. The humility that they both face when considering how they ended up in such awful situations is a new dimension of the terrorism debate that is rarely discussed by the media. Generally, terrorists are shown to be despicable men from far away lands, being shot at in the distant hills. Bismallah! offers a rare close-up of the personal journey into how people can become motivated to fight for a higher cause, whatever side they’re on. By showing how the British soldier’s choice to join the army was motivated by the same desire for purpose as the ISIS recruit, Bismallah! shows how radicalisation is more common than we think, and not just something that happens to religious extremists. Fanatics, by the fact of their radicalisation, are potentially less prone to thoughts of selfless reflection than the average person.
Despite this, the narrative’s main flaw is that this comes with a definite bias. The radical is ultimately coaxed from his absolutist position, and he is made to realise that his rhetoric, once unpacked, is not convincing when appealed to by good old British common sense. Though a lack of bias is hard to achieve with a terrorist group, the play’s effort of understanding why the terrorist became radicalised – a lonely, isolated childhood – is undermined when we are told that the decisions of the terrorists were, ultimately, wrong and stupid. Bismallah!’s ultimate recourse back to British values takes the wind out of the terrorist’s sails, rather than acknowledging that anything about western culture ought to be changed.
When tackling larger political issues, Bismallah! can feel flat and forced. The Yorkshire soldier and the London terrorist (so different, yet so similar!) is a juxtaposition that undermines the radicalisation of ISIS recruits with humour and humility, but one that fails when it tries to make any truly challenging political points. Yet, understanding why ordinary ex-Wetherspoons employees can hate their jobs and lives so much that they fight for political causes is a topic that Bismallah! is excellent at investigating. The stage lends itself particularly well to this. Bare apart from a pole and the two soldiers, the empty cell means that nothing else can distract the two men. Frustratingly, this means that, in an empty, uncontested space, common sense is the western value system. The terrorist’s head is portrayed as being full of rhetorical noise, and when the silence of the prison cell is the absence of the ISIS’ rhetoric, natural good judgement is what the British soldier knew all along. Despite this, the sparse staging means the audience is nevertheless privy to a close-up view of the private lives of those trapped inside humungous ideological forces.
Overall, Bismallah! is funny because it works out that people sound ridiculous when they spout ideological nonsense, and how, when pressed, this isn’t what they actually think. It’s good at talking about people who don’t truly understand the grand ideals they claim to espouse, but is slightly weaker when telling an audience why western ideology is better than radical Islamic law. By defaulting to ‘the west is best’, the play avoids any confrontation with western values that the counter-cultural terrorism provides space for, and the result is that Bismallah! can often feel like it blindly peddles the western party line.
Bismillah! ran until March 4th. Find more information here.
Featured image courtesy of Wound Up Theatre.