Culture Editor Olivia Boyce reviews Javaad Alipoor’s moving and bold exploration of extremism and hate speech, ‘The Believers Are But Brothers’
It is safe to say that there are few shows quite like Javaad Alipoor’s excellent The Believers Are But Brothers, previously a standout of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, and currently on tour to venues including the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre space.
The show, acted entirely by Javaad with the technical help of a few others behind the scenes, draws together an astonishing range of technology and voices to tell a narrative of radicalisation and hate speech, the role technology plays as a power to change culture and society, and the very human voices and costs behind them all.
Alipoor’s script is a damn good one, weaving a complex narrative for multiple characters and providing a complicated foray into the world of technology, accomplishing this all within the hour and ten or so minutes the play lasts for. Remarkable is the eye-opening depth with which Alipoor explores the truth behind technology’s role in radicalisation, as he deftly leads us through the ways in which disillusioned young men, such as those he takes as his characters, may find themselves becoming radicalised, exploring the darker side of 4chan, gamergate, the careful manipulative editing behind footage shared by ISIS and similar groups and much more. Present too are more mundane examples, such as the odd ridiculous meme (everyone loves doge, right?) – but this serves only to remind us that, as Alipoor says, the extremist materials he references are ever only a few clicks away.
The show also involves the subversion of one of theatre’s more well-known rules, that of turning off your phone during a performance. Here, Alipoor invites audiences in via a Whatsapp group, in which he poses a series of questions as well as memes, both ridiculous and strikingly dark and politicised.
However, the true strength of this group is when, amidst the various audience responses to the question ‘what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen on the internet?’, a user with the same username as the increasingly radicalised character Ethan, ‘Forthelulz’, posts horrific threats of violence, sexual assault, and messages encouraging far-right extremism. These are not only shocking, immediate realisations of the same rhetoric and actions Alipoor has been describing, but are also so easily lost amidst the wider discourse happening to answer the question that they become symptomatic of how such messages may pass almost unnoticed online.
The WhatsApp messaging also becomes especially poignant at the very close of the play, in a surprisingly tender moment of audience unity that should be experienced for oneself rather than spoiled here.
Though inevitably bound up in technology, remarkable too is the human focus Alipoor brings to the show, both in his audience interaction and the characters he creates. Alipoor addresses the audience conversationally, with an easy charm and humour which leaves us disarmed for those moments when he returns to his laptop, exploring some of the darker areas of the net and showing just how easy it for tech savvy members of groups such as ISIS to begin radicalising others. Alipoor’s three characters, two British Muslim and one white American, serve to highlight the parallels between the American Far-Right and ISIS in their radicalising methods whilst also carefully showing their differences, as well as what it means to be co-opted by a cause in which you may not believe.
Alipoor’s show is truly an experimental, ambitious and powerful play, equally shocking and heartbreaking, and most definitely one that will leave audiences reeling. He closes the play with ‘At the edge of our decaying bodies lies a network of power greater than any tyrant has ever dreamed’, a horrifying and ominous note which leaves us all clutching our mobile phones, wondering just what technology has got us into. Go see this brilliant new work, and be prepared to have your understanding of technology irrevocably altered.