As its Artistic Director from 1984 to 2012, Nicolas Kent put the Tricycle Theatre on the international map with his stirring productions of tribunal plays about topical issues. Now, with writer Gillian Slovo (with whom he collaborated on Guantanamo and The Riots), he turns his focus to the ‘existential threat’ of rising jihadism in another piece of verbatim theatre, Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State.
In a tightly packed 95 minutes, the show looks at why hundreds of (mainly young) people in Europe go off to fight for IS in Iraq and Syria, as well as helping to carry out the sort of terrorist attacks we have seen recently in Paris and Brussels. The script is based on extensive interviews with police, academics, campaigners, teachers, schoolchildren and mothers who have lost their children to a so-called Islamic ‘holy war’.
We hear likely motives such as the recruits facing discrimination and not feeling they belong to decadent Western society, or being angered by the treatment of Palestinians and invasions of Muslim countries by the West, or wanting to live a ‘pure’ life with strict Sharia law and being willing to sacrifice themselves for a ‘greater cause’. But there is also a strong sense of vulnerable young people being brainwashed and exploited for pernicious ends.
It is important to have some context but too often it feels like we are just being given a history lecture by a variety of experts, as the roots of modern jihadism are explained to lie in the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which evolved into the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Although a wide range of sometimes opposing views are aired there is a big black hole at the centre of the debate since – understandably of course – the jihadists themselves are not represented. And there is very little sense of real conflict on stage.
To some extent this is in the nature of the genre because the performers speak monologues directly to the audience with little interaction among themselves. When four anonymous sixth-formers (engagingly performed by Lara Sawalha, Farshid Rokey, Ronak Patani and Zara Azam) from Tower Hamlets ‒ home to the three girls who left to become ‘Jihadi brides’ last year ‒ do respond to each other, it brings the show to life. They give a brightly articulate account of what it feels like as ordinary young Muslims to be regarded as potential terrorists in London today.
The most emotionally involving part of the show is undoubtedly the testimony of the three mothers from the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek (played with sensitivity by Nathalie Armin, Sirine Saba and Penny Layden). Their feelings of grief and guilt over the loss of their two sons and a daughter is very moving.
The staging is not very imaginative, though it is a nice touch to have the ISIS leader, and self-proclaimed Caliph of the Muslim Ummah, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaim his extreme Islamist messages from high above the stage as if speaking from a minbar. Lucy Sierra’s design features screens in a fragmented shape of Syria on which the country’s map, Black Standard flag and Islamic architecture is projected, as well as news footage of war-torn scenes from Raqqa. There are also three TV monitors on which the stage performers sometimes appear as if being interviewed for a current affairs programme.
The value of straight documentary theatre can be disputed but at its best it can give a new intensity and urgency to the issues involved. This show though is essentially an inert and undramatic presentation of talking heads mainly sitting on office chairs giving their own opinions about the growth of the domestic jihadist and what to do about it. It offers insights into a very complicated subject but it may have been better to present the material as a piece of journalism.
Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State is on until 7th May 2016. Click here for tickets.