There’s an awkward tension in the Studio space, and it’s not coming from Asif Khan who’s talking to us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the growing threat of radicalisation in the UK. It’s from the audience. Our current political climate means we’re a bit too afraid to laugh at these issues. It’s ridiculous that we see life reflected on stage, and yet these scenarios are never really discussed enough in an everyday way. Thank goodness then for Hassan Abdulzarrak, whose writing refuses to shy away from controversial issues and introduces instead a series of everymen. Matching varying levels of relatability, Abdulzarrak’s script works to convince the audience that it’s just fine to laugh at tension, that this is a way to disarm it.
That’s not to say that the monologues presented tonight are without tension: instead, Abdulzarrak uses the political climate in Palestine, America and the UK as a backdrop to four individuals whose personal goals interact with these political tensions. Whether it’s for love, sex, renown or a new gadget, the characters we are introduced to have the potential to grapple with the largest tensions available in their own worlds. It’s interesting to see that the larger world consequences are set aside and rather assumed within the play, instead the larger decisions are based on personal gain. It’s understandable: how many of us have really fretted over Palestine as frequently as we’ve worried about paying the bills or whether to invite that casual acquaintance to a party?
Before assuming each character in a new monologue, Asif Khan spends a brief time adjusting his hair, taking a drink or interacting with knick-knacks around the set, all reflected in one of two mirrors on stage. This is a great technique for seeing characters at their most vulnerable, especially as it’s the characters we immediately see. Khan does not “phase out” of one persona to ease into another: the switch is instantaneous, synced up perfectly with a slick technical production value inherent in the show. These reflective moments, both spiritually and physically, are found in intimate environs- one mirror is found in a dressing room, the other against a locker at a gym. This is where we see characters stripped down from any bravado they relate to the audience when addressing us, and it’s unifying that all of these men regardless of background and intent will take a second to nervously flick their fringe or fiddle with a jumper.
Khan does an excellent job to convey a range of ages, circumstances and experiences. His characters can be active, listing or completely still and he still commands the entire stage. There’s also, as mentioned, that range of movement on the morality scale across his performance. Abdulrazzak has presented us with fleshed-out characters that are never quite black-and-white in intentions and opinions, but Khan takes it a step further to physically convey relatable qualities regardless of their actions.
There is a little inconsistency with the strength of the monologues: whilst it presents an intensely interesting character, the writing of The Apple feels somewhat rushed and less subtle than the other pieces. Maybe it’s the comparison of the Apple corporation and radicalised Islamic groups that’s a little on the nose, and its constant repetition runs the risk of making the message appear clumsy. There’s the potential that this piece would be the hardest to laugh at – after all, to York residents the story set in Bradford feels the most physically at our doorstep. However, I feel it’s more the rushed quality in which we’re introduced to this character: extending his monologue might just make the piece run like a stream of consciousness. Instead, the writing finds itself hurrying toward the humanising factor of the youth’s grandfather keeping him in the UK for now.
In contrast, Level 42 is the strongest piece of the night. It’s a fantastic slow-burner where we meet a man whose attempt to write the “definitive post- 9/11 novel” lands him in hot water when it seems a little too well thought out. By having some more time with this character, we can better appreciate the nervous ticks Khan has brought to the performance. It’s a clever original piece of writing as well, which fits a lot better with the overriding feel of the show – that these unassuming characters have been thrown into their larger-world circumstances, rather than seeking them out.
Love, Bombs and Apples is a piece that keeps the brain ticking over the issues presented explicitly or implicitly. Maybe that is the best way forward with addressing these political conflicts: the nonchalance of the piece had me considering these factors far more than its serious contemporaries. And these things need to be discussed, they’re so loaded that even the National Theatre felt afraid to stage a play about radicalised teenagers earlier this year. Hopefully we’ll see more from Abdulrazzak in the future, as his work is needed to teach us how to organically discuss the issues we’re too afraid of.
Love, Bombs and Apples was on at the York Theatre Royal. Click here for more information.