These days most audiences are given a polite but firm reminder to turn off their mobile phones before the start of a performance. But Javaad Alipoor would much prefer it if you left yours on. Upon entering the theatre for his one-man show, The Believers are but Brothers, we are signed up to a group on the instant messaging service WhatsApp and the next hour is punctuated by the buzzing of messages from both his fictional characters and audience members.
WhatsApp is just one of many devices employed in Alipoor’s exploration of online radicalisation and male violence. A mix of performance lecture, storytelling and film, it’s an ambitious and complex show that’s largely held together by Alipoor’s mastery of his material and the well-drilled technical team.
The show’s substance is as equally complex its form. Alipoor delivers a dense multi-stranded narrative, which focuses on three interconnected fictionalised stories featuring two disaffected British Muslims and a sexually frustrated teenager from Orange County, California. Alongside this, he gives us a potted history of the birth of ISIS and a crash course in online message boards, as well as relaying some of the more salient facts about Muslim extremism that are missed in the sea of fake news. One that sticks in my mind is that out of the three million Muslims living in Britain, only 400 of them have been charged with terrorism-related crimes.
Switching your attention between the onstage action and WhatsApp is pretty demanding and it’s easy to get a bit lost. As one audience member messages: “Missed half this shit with my phone pinging”.
But it’s well worth persevering.
Alippor’s central thesis that the internet is being used by men (it is always men) as an effective tool to polarise ideologies and annihilate the middle ground, known as the Grey Zone. In other words, it is a great catalyst for conflict. This is, at least in part, because the internet is perfect for generating and spreading falsehoods. Footage of suicide bomber who sacrifices himself in protest against Assad’s regime is photoshopped and recast as a heroic Isis martyr. This manipulated film is then watched by a right wing teenager who sees it as proof that white people and Arabs shouldn’t live together. Every time content like this is viewed, the Grey Zone disintegrates a little more.
While Alipoor focuses mostly on the Islamic extremism, the show’s most powerful and disturbing moments relate to Gamergate, in which a female journalist writing about sexism in computer games was subjected to an online hate campaign.
Here, the WhatsApp messages take a dark and shocking turn. There is certainly no Grey Zone here.
One says: “If you don’t stop ruining the internet, your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of teen Vogue”.
And it gets worse, quickly turning into graphic rape threats. What makes this undiluted rage all the more disturbing is that it lands amidst a flurry of light-hearted messages about the strangest things we’ve seen on the internet. Alipoor skilfully lulls the audience into a false sense of security before delivering these hate-filled blows.
With the internet, even the most insignificant incel can make their presence felt. A lone voice that would normally be screaming into the abyss is now able to be heard by like-minded tortured souls, who come together to take action.
As Alipoor says in the show’s dying moments: “In the inky blackness of our screens…lies a network of power greater than any tyrant has ever dreamed.”
The Believers are but Brothers was on from 14 – 16 June at Northern Stage and is now touring. Click here for more details.