“At the edge of our decaying bodies lies a network of power greater than any tyrant has ever dreamed” – Javaad Alipoor, The Believers are but Brothers.
Javaad Alipoor weaves a story of three men who venture down the rabbit hole of the blue light of screens with a dialectic about the internet and political extremism. Alipoor begins his show by defending social media and the age of the internet from the usual protestations: That it puts us into a bubble in which we don’t see opposing viewpoints, that it isolates us as we go through the real world staring into our screens. In the opening of his dialogue, Alipoor is attempting to take the discussion away from the pros and cons of our constant virtual connection and pointing us to the power that lies in the seemingly ineffectual world of memes, social media, and online chat rooms. The Believers are but Brothers approaches ISIS and the Alt-right through the familiar lens of our day to day messaging and makes an original attempt at putting a spotlight on the darker ways in which the internet is shaping our world.
Dramatizing online environments has always posed a problem to theatre-makers: despite the connectivity, it brings to us, our online realities often take place in spaces physically isolated and insular by nature. Often the solution has been to create an onstage representation of a virtual space, but this falls short in exploring the nature of the virtual interaction as it conflates virtual and physical space: a thought comes to mind of The Royal Court’s ‘Teh Internet is Serious business’ which physicalized the torrent site ‘The Pirate Bay’ as a man dressed in a pirate outfit standing on a sandy mound. The Believers are but Brothers has a unique way of interweaving the virtual world with a physical stage presence: the entire audience are connected by a WhatsApp group to which they can post to at any time during the performance. In this way Alipoor is connecting a virtual and physical interaction with his audience. The result is unexpectedly exciting.
Through the use of WhatsApp, Alipoor creates an anonymous interaction with the audience which playfully goads us to push past the polite – “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on the internet… How polite and theatre liberal are we going to be?” Most of us seem to have the idea that we have seen (mostly accidentally) more graphic and disgusting things on the internet than the average person. Maybe you only use the internet to check up on your Nan or see how your prayer group is doing and have never stumbled across anything even remotely risqué, but I suspect not. Alipoor creates a space in which we realise that the online experiences that we wouldn’t bring up in polite conversation are par for the course the evolution of internet usage. Coming across the ‘dark side’ of the internet is more common than we seem to suspect: it isn’t just extremist and sadists who stumble upon unsavoury websites and media. The creation of an anonymous forum for audience discussion mirrors the Alipoor’s narrative and draws us closer to an understanding of the characters.
At the very least, there is certainly a novelty in breaking all the rules when it comes to phones in the theatre; we are asked specifically to keep our ringtones on loud and to message the group whenever it strikes our fancy. This does, as you would expect, disrupt the flow of the show occasionally: there are instances in which buzzes and giggles cut into one of Alipoor’s monologues in which he sets the scene of his character’s lives. But beyond the simple novelty of being able to browse in a space which would usually make a social pariah out of anyone who decided that they’d rather be scrolling the latest dank memes than watching the show; there is a unity we get from this taboo. It’s a bit like the feeling of hiding from your parents and staying up past your bedtime at a sleepover: There’s a sense of connection we get by flaunting the rules together. The success of the show hinges on this connection which Alipoor eggs us on to make.
One of the main focuses of Alipoor’s dialogue is the destruction of the ‘Grey Zone’. The Grey Zone is described by ISIS to be the middle ground that lies between those who have sided with the Jihadists and those who have put their lot in with the ‘Crusaders’. We are pointed in the direction of President Bush’s famous quotation: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This narrative of clear battlegrounds is constantly found in both ancient religious texts – “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” and modern political diatribes. Here Alipoor draws an interesting comparison between ISIS and the far-right. Whilst vastly different in ideals and worldview in most ways, they share a similar aim to create a clear divide within society in which any conflict between cultures and ideals is conflated to one representing the forces of good against evil. Alipoor manages to keep a light touch with the issues he brings to the fore, and he avoids the pitfall of making the stage become a pulpit. Often, when theatre makers approach political discussion their hearts are on their sleeve in such a way that makes the narrative feel forced: as if the storytelling is a thinly veiled excuse to convey a political opinion to the audience. Alipoor’s narrative examines the ethics of dogmatism whilst avoiding the trap of becoming dogmatic itself. The show is clearly very well researched and undoubtedly adds to a conversation that has no lack of media coverage and public attention.
Alipoor has doubtlessly set the stage for thought-provoking discussion and an interesting dynamic between the audience and performer, but it is not without a cost. The shortcoming of Alipoor’s innovative audience interaction is that it often detracts from the strength of the character-driven narrative. The show often switches quickly from a forum discussion involving the audience, to a more traditional linear narrative depicting one of three main characters. This creates moments in which a large part of the audience are still busy tapping away at their screens and trying to put their two cents into the discussion and so miss important moments of character development. Alipoor obviously makes an effort to ensure the more character-based elements of storytelling are emotive, but to some extent, the show sacrifices performativity for discussion. Despite the occasions when the constant communication of the group disrupts the action; there is always a dialogue between the online chat and the action onstage. There is a Brechtian tilt to the show, and one would be hard-pressed to leave the theatre without food for thought.
Though the concept of adding the audience to a chat group is a very simple one, the effect is unique. As theatre inevitably continues to explore issues surrounding technology and its effects, I look forward to seeing more ways in which theatre-makers can use technology to change the relationship between audience and performer. Alipoor is convincing in his supposition that there is great power in our methods of communication: in using the audience as an integral part of the show, he manages to maintain the balance between a thought-provoking dialectic on ISIS and the war against the ‘Grey Zone’ with a human story.
 Transcript of Bush’s speech: http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/09/20/gen.bush.transcript/
 Mathew 12:30 New international version http://biblehub.com/matthew/12-30.htm