Inspired by director Annemiek Van Elst’s experiences of her brother converting to Islam, Becoming Mohammed explores what it takes for a Western man to become a Muslim, and for his family to come to terms with his choice. We caught up with Annemiek to find out more about the show which is at The Pleasance Theatre 2nd – 21st May.
You’re directing Becoming Mohammed at the Pleasance Theatre, what can you tell us about the play?
Becoming Mohammed explores ideas around family. We follow Sara and Thomas, two estranged siblings who are trying to reconnect, despite their new lives. When Sara comes for a surprise visit, they struggle to find common ground. Though they share memories of growing up together in Rotterdam, their interpretations differ as vastly as the rift that has grown between them. What is the importance of traditions and memories? Do they make you who you are, or can you move away from them to become your own person? Sara feels she is losing her brother, and that Islam and the Muslims he has surrounded himself with are a bad influence. Meanwhile, Thomas is trying to become a good Muslim and with that a better version of himself, but he finds it hard to cope with his sister and the past life she brings with her. Both Sara and Thomas are fighting for the future of their family, but hurt each other in their way of doing so – can this still be fixed?
It’s been inspired by your own experiences with your brother, how close to real events is it?
Some events in the play are very close to reality, there are even bits of verbatim dialogue in the script. But overall the characters and the story only take inspiration from my personal experience; it grapples with the same thoughts and emotions, but is dramatised for stage. We wanted to tell a story that took place over seven years in an hour and a half production, which asked for some editing and shifting. Claudia [the writer] has interviewed both my brother and I several times. Throughout the writing process she continued to send us questions and we continued to tell her stories, which inspired her writing. This play might not be an exact retelling of what happened when my brother converted to Islam, but I am sure that when my family come to watch they will recognise some events and the feelings that are represented in the show.
How did writer, Claudia Marinaro, become involved?
Claudia and I met during our MA studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. We collaborated on my final show No Fixed Abode; which was an intense project that dealt with homelessness and belonging. She visited me when I spent a weekend on the street for research, and came with me to the Netherlands when we played the show at Theaterfestival Boulevard. We have since worked together on several projects, and from our shared vision and working method we started our company And Many Others. Asking her to write this play was so evidently obvious to me. She is a brilliant writer, sharp thinker, and I admire her work and personality. I needed distance from this personal experience in order to bring it to the stage; her involvement brought it there in all the right words. I am very fortunate to have found such a strong partner that I can count on creatively and professionally!
You’ve had involvement from Islamic communities, what did that involve and how did you engage them?
Within our team we are working closely with two Muslim artists. Nabihah Islam: a Writer and Cultural Facilitator, and Syed Nisar: a fashion designer who uses his Pakistani and Muslim heritage in his garments. They told me a lot about their own interpretation and practice of the religion. They taught our actors how to pray, how to pronounce certain Arabic words, and were able to answer questions where my own knowledge was lacking. With our cast and crew members we have visited Kingston Mosque and London Central Mosque. We spoke to the Imam and heard about their experience with reverts, and attended a prayer. We met a British female revert, who is incredibly engaging and will be part of our second post-show talk (Friday May 12). This was a very enlightening experience for all of us. It is important to me that my team knows about Islam, and for those communities to have ties with our show, it’s part of the reason why I am making this production: to bring Islamic communities and local Western communities closer together
Research forms an important component of your work, how do you go about doing that and incorporating it?
We create shows that start from a personal experience or strong personal interest, they always relate to current issues in society – but that doesn’t mean that our own connections with these subjects are sufficient to create a show. Before any creative work is done, we start our research online and in books that relate to the social/political content of the show. We aim to make connections with relevant Universities and researchers, local groups and organisations to gather a wide range of knowledge and stories. Every show we’ve created asks for a different approach of incorporating this. For Becoming Mohammed we worked with Elizabeth Munro, a PhD student at SOAS University who specialises in conversion to Islam in the UK. We swapped articles and experiences, she invited Claudia and I to several of her lectures, and she will be part of our second post-show talk (Friday 14 May). All these academic facts influenced our thinking about the play and can be found in the final script. It was also a great tool to communicate with designers and actors when they needed more factual information for their work. For our practical research we have visited several Mosque’s, spoke to the Imam and the people visiting the Mosque, and had conversations with other converts. I believed it was important for everyone to have knowledge of Islam as a whole, and to know that this play is just one experience, amongst many others.
What have been the challenges of directing a play based on your own experiences?
At our first production meeting with cast and crew, everyone wanted to know ‘how it really went’. Since the play and the character are inspired by true events, but not the specific details, I was hesitant to tell my own story. I didn’t want the actors to play my brother and me; they had to be characters that were found from the script. I have since shared bits of my experience, as I found sometimes an anecdote helps to highlight certain situations. It is a difficult balance to find and keep: to tell or not to tell. The further we get into rehearsals, the more I am confronted with situations or emotions that feel very personal. I am not making this show to process my life experiences, but I would lie if I said it hadn’t occurred. All the research inside and outside the rehearsal room helps me understand my brother and our situation better. The challenge is not to let my emotions take over a rehearsal, but translate them into practical work for the actors and designers. More than in other projects, I have invited people into rehearsals for feedback to check that the play also relates to an audience who do not share my experience.
Have the cast brought anything to their characters that surprised you?
We are lucky to have a very talented and diverse cast; they are able to surprise me, and each other, with their interpretations of the characters in each scene. They’re doing a great job, and that we have strong characters that are fail beautifully in doing what they believe is best. I believe every good actor brings something to a character that the director could not have thought of in the preparation. When an actor makes a character into a person, there are going to be character traits that are so detailed that they can turn whole scenes around. I always try to create a process where there is enough space for my actors to build the people and the world of the play.