Javaad Alipoor puts his cards on the table early: "I hear it a lot that there’s been a 'renaissance in political theatre', but my question is, how good is it as theatre, and what does it have to say politically?"
The Bradford-based theatremaker is in Edinburgh to open his new show, The Believers Are But Brothers, a complex, challenging and boldly neutral exploration of extremism and what Alipoor terms "resentment powered fascism" in the 21st century. He’s an instinctively political animal, his work springing from a need to question and probe. To explore rather than to explain.
"I feel like a lot of the political work I go to see, I go in to watch it and someone teaches me about something, or provides some pedagogical service, and I kind of go, 'I don’t know what your fucking political CV is. I don’t know what you’ve done politically to put you in that position.'"
It feels like a fair cop, nowhere more so than in the very white and very middle class environment of the Edinburgh Fringe.
"So what I really wanted to do with this play was not teach, because me and my audience are very similar, they’re going to be a left-liberal audience, so I’m not teaching them anything. I felt that I needed to complicate things. And it felt like a way into doing that is to go, ‘I’m a Muslim, and I’m going to show you some Muslim things that maybe you don’t think you have access to', and what I try to do through the show is to play around with those expectations of what a Muslim is."
Alipoor talks fast and he talks smart. His conversation is peppered with references to web resources, poets, philosophers and bloggers. He’s purposeful and considered, with the convictions of an artist who has spent the last decade viewing the world with increasing focus and deepening perception. His early theatrical interest was spurred on by the teaching he received from Madani Younis at Bradford’s pioneering Asian Theatre School.
"It’s basically his fault that I’m doing this for a living," Alipoor reflects. He and Younis, now the artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London, share a Bradford upbringing, as well as a sense that theatre should embody and fight for the change it wants to make in the world. They’re also artists whose thinking is defiantly against the grain of the liberal arts consensus.
Since then he’s founded his own company, Northern Lines, and gone on to make work which springs from community engagement, with their first major success arriving with Orgreave – An English Civil War in 2014. It used a hybrid of community and professional actors to tell the story of two families living through one of the most notorious periods of the miners' strikes, and its approach was typical of Alipoor’s refusal to conform to the consensus, to the easy satirical targets, to pacifying binary narratives.
Asked about the inspiration behind this particular show, Alipoor explains: "Whether we like it or not, the 21st century has landed. It actually landed a while ago in a way that we didn’t recognise at first." He times this dawning not to 9/11, which a Western-centric viewpoint would generally espouse, but to the Arab Spring. "When that all started, the 20th century was over."
His brilliant new play examines how far we’ve come since Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated and began the first revolution. It tells three interlocking stories, of three men in the throes of their own radicalisation. It is told through monologues and web chats, through WhatsApp conversations that spill out onto our own phones, through snatches of computer games and videos of military atrocities. A young girl is blown to pieces again and again. Pages of virulent 4Chan memes scroll past.
The Believers Are But Brothers is not the first piece of work to draw paralells between the radicalisation of young Muslims by ISIS and that of white basement dwellers by right-wing reactionary politics, but it may be the most precise. Providing no concrete answers, it is nevertheless forensic in unpicking the social and psychological makeup of 4Chan and the misogynistic trolling of Gamergate.
What rests at the heart of the piece is a vital conviction: that ISIS and the alt-right emerge not from political preference or religious extremism, but from what he terms a "kind of resentment-powered fascism". The Believers grew from a frustration Alipoor felt regarding the popular narratives applied to these new fascisms, and to those who flee the UK and join ISIS.
"The mainstream discussion about why young Muslims get involved in this goes something like, '21st-century post-modern identity is a very complex thing, it’s multi-layered and multi-faceted – some people are idiots who can’t deal with this, so they fall back on some kind of simple old fashioned tribalism.' Bullshit. That’s fucking bullshit."
Instead, what Alipoor’s research has thrown up, articulated brilliantly in his play, is a fantasy land more inspired by Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft than any holy writ or imam’s preaching. Of a world of endless deserts and ripped jihadis that is exotic and sexy and powerful when urban adolescent lives in the UK can feel grey and unpromising. It’s a worthy thesis.
"I don’t think we’re making work about that yet. I haven’t seen that work yet," says Alipoor.