Baptised by the light of their computer screens, a world of violence at their fingertips, a generation of young men are searching for identities. Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers attempts to enlighten its audience on religious extremism, racism, and sexism in the modern age; ‘attempts’ being the operative word.
Upon entering the Bush Theatre, you are invited to join a group on instant-messaging service WhatsApp, and instructed to keep your phone on loud during the show. Throughout the hour-long one-man show, memes, tweets from Aleppo, alt-right views, and sexist affronts are exchanged in the chat. Although, granted, a unique idea that helped to symbolise the powerful anonymity that technology affords, the audience’s replies to the chat often provided more entertainment than the show itself.
The Believers Are But Brothers is loosely based on three young men; Atif, Marwan, and Ethan. Atif and Marwan are British Muslims turned ISIS members enticed by the same propaganda video of a bombing in Syria. Ethan is a middle-class, non-Muslim chatroom geek silently portrayed by the show’s producer Luke Emery, who appears behind a screen onto which distressing videos are repeatedly projected. The language is dense and poetic, Alipoor is clearly a talented wordsmith. On paper, I imagine The Believers Are But Brothers could be understood, theatrically it falls short. Speaking too quickly, Alipoor doesn’t allow you pause to register what you’ve just heard. He switches quickly between detailing the lives of the three men to unleashing deluges of information on religious extremism and online culture. Although it is interesting, especially his knowledge of The Cult of Kek - a satirical 4chan religion based around the worship of a frog-headed god - any meaning to be found in the stories of Atif, Marwan, and Ethan is immediately lost.
While resentment fuelled young men lit by their computer screens are the topic of the performance, it is young women lit by their phone screens who make up the majority of Alipoor’s audience. He acknowledges early on, women and their opinions are cut out of his narrative. Whilst carrying out research for the show, he found it difficult to communicate with young women who had joined violent Sunni extremist groups; as a non-practicing Muslim man from a Shia background they refused to talk to him. Well, fair enough. But, as is the nature of Alipoor’s performance, he jumps from Islamic extremism to sexism on 4chan in a beat and chooses again not to include women in the story. Presenting rape and sexism as facts of life and choosing not to voice the views of women pertaining to this or attempting to offer a solution felt depressingly familiar.
The use of WhatsApp, flashing computer screens and climactic music acted as a theatrical, and often distracting, smokescreen for what could have been an intriguing dive into the digital realm. Alipoor is teeming with ideas, they are, however, poorly executed in The Believers Are But Brothers.