The terrorist attacks on Paris and Brussels have forced us to once again confront issues of identity and national security. Given the wealth of propaganda IS spread online no one can be under any illusions about the group’s intent to violently instil a caliphate. But then why are British Muslims volunteering to fight for them? Another World is a verbatim drama that reunites playwright Gillian Slovo with the director Nicholas Kent. The pair’s past documentary-theatre pieces include the well received Srebenica (1996) and The Riots (2011). Their latest offering is a timely, emotive, if not rather partial and – as has been noted by other critics – undramatic examination of IS’s origin, the impact upon the families whose children have become radicalised, and the effects the War on Terror has had on British Muslims.
Another World suffers from a lack of focus – Slovo and Kent throw the net too wide and miss an opportunity to unpick the complexities of the conflicting arguments. Opening the play with a speech by the IS leader, or caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, means the ideology underpinning the group’s vision of a theocratic state demands attention. Shiraz Mahir, a Research Fellow at King’s College and former member of Hizb ut-Tahir, for instance, mentions the practice of takfir, meaning the excommunication of an apostate. He explains that takfir is a key principle in Islamist terrorism because it authorises the killing of Muslims by other Muslims, but its appropriation by the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s is never spoken of. Despite being one of the founders of Islamist terrorism Qutb’s story is entirely absent. This is a significant omission given the long stretches devoted to discussing the origins of 9/11 and militant Islam. The imprisonment (or “extraordinary rendition”) of innocent civilians is floated by a former prisoner of Guantanamo Bay Moazzam Begg as a kernel for radicalisation. The logic is compelling, but no links are made between counter terror policy and the torture of key figures such as Qutb and the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Egyptian gaols, which many commentators have suggested emboldened them to make Muslim states such as Egypt legitimate targets for attack.
Instead, Slovo’s script focuses on the West’s entanglement in the Middle East. As a consequence, human rights lawyers and special advisors rehearse familiar arguments regarding Western imperialism, whilst the case for the defence of the War on Terror comes from an unsympathetic American General. He is a voice in the wilderness amongst the crowded stage of voices denouncing the actions of the US and UK governments. The history of terrorism that is spoken of is so guilt leaden that Slovo risks absolving anyone who joins IS from direct blame. More than that – the question of moral, never mind legal, culpability for murder is relentlessly deflected back to the audience. This is most accentuated when three Muslim teenagers from Tower Hamlets complain that the coverage of the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris was given undue coverage. What about the suicide bombings in Turkey, or in Lebanon? These questions are framed as legitimate objections but no broadcaster is included to explain the process of editorial decision-making, or indeed why it might be dangerous for journalists to travel to certain parts of the world. It does, however, give some indication of how government initiatives such as the Prevent strategy risk alienating the very people it claims to protect by generalising the cultural complexities of terrorism.
The production is strongest when it devotes time to the testimony of three mothers: Yasmin (Natahlie Armin), Geraldine (Penny Ladin), and Samira (Sirine Saba), whose children travelled to fight for IS in Syria. All three speak of feelings of shame at having not spotted any clues or signs before it was too late. They have one foot in this other world through no choice of their own and so are torn between their responsibilities as citizens and as parents. A much greater focus on these three would have allowed Slovo to examine the appeal of IS for Europeans living in a relatively stable and free society. But no new arguments are presented or challenging ideas proposed. Another World largely fails to tell untold stories and so falls back on old arguments that do not adequately confront the fundamental issues we face today. As a consequence, Slovo and Kent address the issues with the same broad-brush strokes they have set out to critique and rectify.
Inspired by Jeff Wall’s photo of the same title, Vanishing Point’s uncomfortably insightful and intelligent The Destroyed Room addresses our response to the current convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa. As a consequence of the Syrian civil war and the disintegration of Libya following the fall of Gaddafi, Europe is experiencing the most significant refugee crisis since the Second World War, triggering profound debates on our moral responsibilities to peoples whose destines we are entangled in. Ignorance is surely no excuse: we live in an age when images of suffering are commonplace, but has the Web produced an amoral body politick? What is the appeal of seeing a man burnt alive or children drowning?
The majority of the performance consists of a conversation and ends with a gut wrenching yet visually arresting image, and therefore shares many similarities with the Danish theatre company Wunderbaum’s 2015 show Looking For Paul in its dramaturgy and scenography. Like Looking for Paul, The Destroyed Room explores how social media acts on us as much as we use it to communicate with the world.
In the style of Channel Four’s After Dark, two women and a man sit in a living room replete with snacks and wine and discuss the refugee crisis and IS atrocities. Semi-improvised, the conversation begins with Pauline Goldsmith asking, “When was the first time you realised that life was unfair?” Elicia Daly and Barnaby Power share relatively tame stories, but very quickly – as so often happens in everyday discourse – the conversation morphs into something far darker. The mention of Syria ignites a heated debate on our responsibilities to ensuring refugees are safe, the morality of offering or refusing asylum, and the unintended consequences of immigration. Despite the overtly political subject matter, The Destroyed Room foregrounds the moral ambiguity and emotional response these crises engender over academic debate. Nuanced arguments cannot help but fail to adequately address the complex, seemingly insurmountable crises the world faces. Issues are not thrashed out by informed speakers but are instead staged as intellectually ungraspable events. The performance effortlessly desecrates debating forums that demand speakers offer solutions and answers, most notably the BBC’s The Moral Maze and Question Time, by its sophisticated handling of the role social media plays in our reading on the world.
Two large and deliberately obtrusive cameras film the actors whilst the footage is projected onto a large screen hanging from the ceiling. The actors never address this or even seem aware of their presence, thereby perfectly embodying our contemporary experience of ubiquitous yet consensual surveillance. Our addiction to self-documentation is coupled with a compulsion to consume media. The ubiquity of the Web muddies our moral waters by inviting us into a connected space that is managed by invisible hands continuously spinning threads in cyberspace. Daly describes a video of a man being swept away by a wave and her excitement at knowing it is about to happen. So addicted is she to re-living this moment that she adds her own soundtrack, relishing the human tragedy. In the most powerful moment, Goldsmith – who acts as unofficial chair and provocateur – asks who has watched an IS video. The audience notably jittered. Suddenly, we became aware that we all could watch one right now if we wanted to. After some cajoling Power defensively but almost proudly admits that he has, but as his account of a man being lead into an abandoned arena to be burnt alive and then buried in rubble develops in detail we realise he is not a casual viewer. Projected onto the screen, we can see him conjuring the images in his mind’s eye. Goldsmith and Daly are hooked. They can’t get enough of it, and neither can the audience. None of us are immune from propaganda.
As the conversation becomes more heated water creeps onto the floor. The actors abruptly end the conversation and exit the stage leaving us to ponder the irresolvable issues they have discussed. But just when we feel able to leave, the stage is flooded. Fabric on the walls is washed away. And, lest we should forget, these issues are not confined to a conversation – footage of dying babies and shocked and terrified refugees is projected onto the screen. What more is there left to say? Destruction happens. All most of us can do is choose how to interpret it.
- Another World is running at the National Theatre until 7th May 2016 and The Destroyed Room is running at the Battersea Arts Centre until 14th May 2016