BISMILLAH -VAULTS FESTIVAL 2018 by Susy Brett
A restaged version of the 2015 Fringe hit show Bismillah! (named after the Arabic phrase meaning ‘In the name of Allah’, or the word you mumble during drunken renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody) has made its home at The Vaults in Waterloo this week. The show explores the disenfranchisement of the modern British youth.
Bismillah! is a play that revolves around two men. Danny is an Islamic State fighter, who left his ‘liberal’ family behind in London to fight for his ideals (after two short spells at Wetherspoons and WH Smiths). His captive, Dean, is a soldier from Leeds, who joined the army in the hope of finding purpose and kinship. When Danny is sent to kill Dean, the two men share 75 minutes of recollections and reflections, sharing stories of childhood, job struggles, broken hearts and fried chicken. On what should be Dean’s last night on Earth, the two soldiers discover that they are not as dissimilar as the war would have them believe.
Set in the intimate Cavern at the Vaults, the stage design is minimalist, effortlessly transporting the audience to the basement in Iraq where Dean is being held. This space almost seems purpose-built for a show like Bismillah!, with its exposed brick, narrow confines and the continuing noise from trains overhead creating the feeling that worse going ons are happening elsewhere. With just a pole, to which Dean is tied, in the centre of the room, the doomed nature of Dean’s plight is abundantly clear. Yet, the whole stage is transformed by the use of clever sound and lighting to create a real sense of fear and claustrophobia during the spine-tingling climax of the show.
The performances from the two leads, Dean, played by Matthew Greenhough, who also wrote the show, and Danny, played by Elliot Liburd, are electrifying. These are two characters who have been sculpted by their position and radicalised by circumstance. The physicality and emotion of the performances therefore feel wonderfully authentic. Greenhough and Liburd are evenly matched in terms of delivering intensity, humour and the many, many snappy lines of dialogue. From shouting matches, to a physical battering, to laughing about how terrible their shared employment history was – their chemistry sparkled on stage. When Dean and Danny spoke, it was not only to each other but to everyone in that audience. Every youngster can relate to the feelings expressed, in that quiet moment of reflection. It begs the question, how different are any of us, really?
Which, of course, brings us to the real question raised by this kind of theatre. There is a debate on how much good can come from tackling problems as sensitive as radicalised youth through arts, particularly comedy. I would suggest anyone who questions the medium of theatre for this purpose to see Bismillah!.
As a brilliantly blended mixture of comedy and tragedy, Bismillah! is packed full of relatable humour, struggle and heartbreak. Neither Dean nor Danny is fully in the wrong, or right, here. They came from a similar place and took different routes, but their decisions were motivated by the same feeling of deep dissatisfaction in life. Instead, both are understandable, both are sympathetic and both are painfully human. Bismillah! is a shining example of how theatre can educate, evoke empathy and open the minds of its audience on a complex and heartbreaking subject matter.
Bismillah! is running at The Vaults Festival until March 4, 2018.
Thanks also to Susy Brett who attended for us and guest posted. Find her normal twitter adventures at @susybumblebee