The Believers Are But Brothers, Northern Stage at Summerhall, Edinburgh Festival, review

David Pollock
Saturday 05 August 2017 17:42 BST
Alipoor delivers a multimedia feast of a show
Alipoor delivers a multimedia feast of a show

In a Syrian square, a young girl is playing and being filmed on a cameraphone at the precise moment an explosive device falls from the air. Around the world, three men watch the footage, and their reactions inspire very different results. Theatre maker Javaad Alipoor has attempted to place himself inside each of these observers’ heads to examine what he refers to as a war which he says is already going on – a war between the mainstream, permissive, liberal society of the real world, and a cadre of angry young men whose online anonymity allows them to vent their fury and darkest thoughts without fear of consequence.

Alipoor – who is associate director at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill and Sheffield Theatres, and whose practice involves engaging with non-traditional theatre audiences – delivers a multimedia feast of a show (albeit one that is occasionally nausea-inducing) that takes the form of a lecture, a tech demonstration and a series of disturbing third-person monologues growled into the microphone, lights lowered. He occasionally turns from his audience and speaks instead to the webcam mounted on the array of monitors behind him, and everyone viewing has been included in a WhatsApp encrypted messaging group through which he silently ‘performs’ parts of the text.

Drawn from real-world online research, Alipoor paints an ambitious but cohesive picture, reaching back to the origins of Islamic extremism and the development of the alt-right movement through the 4chan discussion site (“basically, one apocalyptic comment section” where “the distinction between irony and sincerity disappears”), on through the infamous Gamergate saga and the glossy, edgy marketing campaign that Isis uses to radicalise prospective fighters. He leads us to a radicalised online world where “anyone can speak and anything can be said”, where outsiders are presented with “a catalogue of strength and dignity and how to be a man”.

There’s a matter-of-fact humour to much of what Alipoor tells us, but also a cold horror – not even so much at the levels of violence and abuse his story uncovers, more at the way the internet appears to have created hive minds whose ideologies are wildly different, but where communal, unleashed, masculine anger depersonalises its own consequences. It’s as though other people are only pixellated collateral damage, like the opponents Alipoor shoots up on screen in Call of Duty as this show for our times plays out its final moments.

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