Fresh from a sell-out run at this year’s VAULT Festival, where it was awarded a Highly Commended accolade, Wound Up Theatre bring their hilarious play Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy to Pleasance London to launch the theatre’s brand new 80-seat Downstairs. This comical, heart-breaking and compassionate play contributes to the vital discussion around the experiences of disenfranchised young people in modern Britain.
We spoke to writer and performer, Matthew Greenhough, to find out more.
Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy is coming to The Pleasance Theatre, what can you tell us about it?
It’s the funniest play you’ll ever see that tackles Islamism and the allure of violent extremist ideologies in contemporary society. It’s a bold and brave show, that’s heart-breaking and hilarious (if I do say so myself) that looks at the reality of a controversial subject and that doesn’t shy away from exploring it. We feel like it’s a show that contributes to a vital discussion around the experiences of disenfranchised young people in modern Britain, and makes it accessible, through a story of disenfranchisement, social alienation, prejudice, radicalisation and the rock band Queen.
What inspired you to write it?
My frustrations at the conversations surrounding radicalisation frankly. I wrote Bismillah! in 2015 with the Soho Theatre’s young writers company – just as lots of young people were starting to decide to go and join a death cult in the Middle East and getting radicalised and no one seemed to understand why – but I kind of did.
Young people being radicalised has become even more of a social issuer since then, but still the dialogue around the issue is always framed as if it’s happening in a vacuum – which is of course a nonsense. To me, the link between feeling like I did/do – disconnected and alienated from society and being radicalised is obvious.
People, young people especially, are desperate and want to find some meaning, connection and cause, in a society that seems sadly devoid of those things. This means that even means of that cause are morally repugnant to most, evidently, is going to have an appeal. This this instinctual feeling I had, turned out through my research to be rooted in fact and evidenced in academia. Of course, it’s an appeal you can rationalise, even when explicitly condemning the means – to deny that is reductive. For young British Muslims, the radical ideology exists in opposition to pretty horrendous imperialistic nonsense carried out by the west in majority Muslim countries for umpteen years.
People seemed to be wilfully blind to this, so I wanted to explore it using comedy. Partly because, well writing comedy is what I do, but also because humour it would be a way to open up the dialogues about difficult subjects and getting audiences to ponder them through getting them laughing at jokes.
Another inspiration was in initial research, my recognising depressing parallels between the propaganda used to attract young Muslims to ISIS, and the army recruitment tactics I’d been barraged by as a white working-class lad from the North. Is your life rubbish, do you lack purpose, are you a bit lonely – we’ve got a solution to all that and it involves guns?
Finally, when I was writing it the reactionist, racist, buffoon Jeremy Clarson punched a BBC producer for bringing him a cold steak. People petitioned and protested his dismissal from his job. Second on the news the same day was a massacre in Syria. People were dying in the Middle East and our cultural response was to ignore it and instead cheerlead for a moronic xenophobic violent millionaire losing his job. After that, I knew I was saying something with the play that needed to be said.
You’ve just had a run at VAULT festival, what have you learned from that?
That there are amazingly talented people in the London fringe making work that deserve an audience. Luckily VAULT provided them and us with some great ones. It was a wonderful experience and it’s an amazing festival we were lucky to be a part of. It also gave me faith in that there was an audience with an appetite for interesting, brave work about difficult subjects. Lots of theatre is boring and feels very safe, which can be disheartening; I tend to write about things that fall out of the three subjects all current successful new writing seem to be about, which while often themselves as ‘edgy’, end up saying the same things that have been said a million times before and exploring nothing new. We took a risk on this play in terms of what we said and how we said it – and the response has been amazing, it was incredibly encouraging for us as creatives.
How does it feel to be opening the Pleasance’s new space, Downstairs?
Bonkers – it’s a huge compliment to be asked to do so. This show has been on a real journey, from a spit and sawdust Edinburgh Fringe run in 2015, through development from Theatre Royal Stratford East, to the VAULT Festival and then to be the premiere show in an exciting new space in a venue I have long admired and wanted to work at. It’s hugely validating for the project and we couldn’t be prouder. We are however hoping that The Pleasance won’t be the end of the show. It’s all just very exciting!
What’s the biggest challenge in performing in a piece you have written?
The first day of rehearsals when I have to relinquish complete control of my baby and trust others to make it the best that it can be. It isn’t easy to do when you’re so close to the work. It helps to have an amazing team around you to ease the transition. I didn’t have that – my team are bloody useless. I kid, this show has been a team effort and, in all incarnations, since 2015, I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by a freakishly talented group of friends and collaborators. It’s all down to them really, they’re responsible for bringing the show to life.
What would you say to someone thinking about coming to see it?
Stop thinking about it and do it! We’re a little show with big bold ideas and ambitions and far we’ve been blessed with wonderful audiences, feedback and opportunities. But this because people have been brave enough to take a chance on a show a little out of the ordinary and who’ve then felt it paid off. A lot of people have worked very hard to secure the success we’ve had so far, we’re excited for what the future holds, but it can only continue while we have new audiences to come on the journey with us. Come and see what all the fuss is about.
Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy is at The Pleasance Downstairs 24th April – 13th May 2018.