Bin Laden: The One Man Show at Sydney's Lyric Theatre
Following hugely successful tours of the UK and the USA, and rave reviews at Adelaide Fringe Festival, the smash-hit theatre production, Bin Laden: The One Man Show, will head to the Seymour Centre for the show’s Sydney premiere from 3rd to 6th April.
Terrorist to some, hero to others, Osama Bin Laden became a symbol to people all over the world - but who was he really? What did we know about him beyond his deplorable acts of violence? The show attempts to answer these questions by telling the story of Osama Bin Laden from his days as a student to 9/11, shining a light on the man behind the monster and the human behind the headlines.
Part theatre, part performance lecture, the show has sold out seasons internationally and garnered critical accolades and multiple five-star reviews. Carly reviewed the show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and our Sydney reviewing team will be back at it again to review when the show opens over in NSW.
To learn more about the show, Carly spoke with co-creator and performer Sam Redway. Have a read below:
You both star in and co-wrote Bin Laden: The One Man Show. What first got you thinking about Bin Laden as the subject matter for your play and what did you set out to achieve by uncovering layers of his personality through this one man show? What did you hope that this show would make people realise?
The day after Osama Bin Laden was killed I was confronted with two clashing and simultaneous experiences. One of empathy and one of utter demonization. I Read a newspaper article that challenged my view of him as the ultimate face of evil – that he had a bad back because of his ascetic diet and towering height, as so walked with a stick. At the same time a 7 year old boy was punching pictures of him shouting “haha, you’re dead” while his family laughed along and helped him punch through the paper. That experience got Tyrrell and I talking about the complexities of the politics at play in the Middle-East and how a lot of groups like Al-Qaeda have moved in and out of favour with the West over time. We debated the Freedom Fighter vs Terrorist dichotomy and where it came from in relation to Osama. We were interested then to see how a conversation about foreign policy, terrorism, violence and religion would change if a Western audience could empathise (rather than sympathise), for a moment, with Osama Bin Laden. And so the show became a radical act of understanding. We don’t believe theatre’s job to make anyone realise anything or to provide answers. What we offer is a challenge. A space to discuss and reflect. We hope to inspire difficult questions and facilitate conversations that are essential for modern life and undervalued in modern society.
The show clearly offers a ‘version’ of Bin Laden that few would recognise. Against the poster child for anti-American terrorism and the face of violent extremism in traditional clothing and hulled in a cave in the middle east. Can you talk a bit about your process in breaking down expectations and opinions of Bin Laden – both your own in writing this and your audiences – how you began the process of creating the work and why you felt this to be such a key element in the success of your piece.
I don’t want to give too much away for an audience before they arrive. Part of the success of the show is in subverting expectations. In creating a cognitive dissonance between what you – the audience – knows and expects and what is being presented to you. In that gap lies the moment of challenge and self-reflection. Trust me, the Bin Laden that you know will be present in the room. However, if the audience received only what they expected to see there would be no debate. And we have held a post-show debate after every show since 2013 so that subverted expectation, the chance to look afresh at something we thought we knew (as we did when we were writing) is the very essence of the show. Therein lies the chance of empathy.
Bin Laden: The One Man Show has been performed over 130 times in cities around the world – did you except that it would hold such resonance with audiences globally and that it would be so well received? What has the experience of touring this show been like and what do you hope to see for its future?
Absolutely not. We made this show with a budget of £500 and we had no idea whether this show was a comedy, a drama, a tragedy, a satire or just plain offensive. We were terrified when we first put it up. I have never cried before a show until this one. And I was so stressed I passed out at the curtain call. We were also worried that a show about Osama Bin Laden would be a bit passé in 2013. He hadn’t been very present since 2001 and he had been shot 2 years before. However, the current global climate seems to be making his story more and more relevant. We performed in Sheffield, UK, the day after the Manchester Arena Bombing. We arrived in New York the day of the Orlando Shooting and performed less than a mile from ground zero two days later. We were mid season in Adelaide on the day of the Christchurch Massacre. All our lives have been deeply affected by the legacy of this man and we need a space to be able to talk about this stuff safely. I think the continuation of horrific acts and our need to understand them, to challenge them and to process them is one of the uncomfortable successes of the show. I could not be more proud that we are able to open up these discussions for people who might otherwise not be able to have them. For the future I would love it if we became irrelevant and all matters pertaining to international terrorism and corruption were done and dusted and consigned to the history books. However, until that happens we will continue providing the space we provide and the difficult conversation we provoke. That’s not to say we aren’t making other work and creating conversations around other topics, but sadly I do not see this show ceasing to be relevant for a few years yet.
You make clear through your show that Bin Laden was a very learned man whose education initially served him well – through piecing together the show and then doing further research I assume in order to take on this character as well, did you learn anything about history’s villain that surprised you or that inspired you or angered you, etc? What did you uncover about him that shaped more than just your opinion of him but your world view or your opinion on certain topics or events as well?
That he was learned and educated are both matters for debate. There are those who say that he saw himself as intellectually superior to the other jihadists around him rather than actually being that – although he had an unparalleled ability to quote the Qur’an (I’ve seen it called his party trick). He also left university before graduation to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1984. I think you could say that what he had served him well. He was very thoughtful and did a lot of reading, for sure. However, I was as confronted as I imagine the majority of our audience is when we were making the show. I knew nothing. I’m not sure I even really knew that he was the son of a Yemeni billionaire construction magnate. He was simply the Twin Towers guy. Mr. Nine Eleven. So everything was a surprise to me. The most pertinent surprise – and perhaps the most confronting - to me was that by all accounts (and I mean all) he was an incredibly sincere and genuine man. Not once, while reading everything I could lay my hands on about him, written by those who knew him, met him and married him, did I ever get the sense that there was an ulterior motive behind his actions. I think that, over everything else, was the fact that allowed me ‘in’ as an actor. It was my realisation that all people who try to change the world try to make the world a better place as they see it. The only thing that separates them is the ideological root and route of that change
At the end of your shows you encourage your audience to join you and your co-writer in a post-show debate. How did this begin and why is this an important feature of the work to you? I imagine that a lot of these discussions can get quite heated – have any stood out as being particularly memorable and what encourages you to continue this element of the theatrical experience after every performance?
The debate has become an Act 2 of sorts. It grew organically out of us not being able to leave the theatre until 2-3am in the first run in Edinburgh because audiences would stay and want to talk to us about it. For our own sanity we had to formalize it. Although it is deliberately informal. We have had everyone in the debate: former members of the CIA, hostage negotiators for the FBI, Donald Trump supporters, Palestinian Journalists, minor Saudi royalty, British Muslim Secondary School Teachers, former Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Syrian Academics, Iranian refugees and Military personnel from US, UK and Australia. All these people debating together is why we continue. All these perspectives being treated with respect. All these perspectives being challenged equally. All these perspectives having a chance to wrestle it out in a safe environment is special. We encourage people from all backgrounds and all perspectives to come and be part of it. There are too many incredible moments. To give you an idea, during our Adelaide run: 1 – an audience member stood up, interrupting the end of the show to tell us that they were a Christian and supported America, that they thought the performance was great but that they were disgusted at what we had said. We invited them to the debate. They didn’t come. 2 – another audience member caught the debate while waiting for another show. They came back for the show the next day and stayed for the next 3 debates because they found it so compelling. 3 – We witnessed a debate about the risks political demonstration in oppressive and violent regimes between an Iranian couple and a white centre-right wing Australian couple who didn’t understand why in the Arabic speaking world people weren’t standing up and making change from within. 4 – After the debate an audience member thanked us for creating a debating environment where their views (as a Christian conservative) were not treated as ‘other’. This was apparently rare in their theatre experience. But we make a point of making sure that all views are equal and as such equally challengeable. None is above or below examination and discourse.
What do you hope that audiences are standing up and leaving the theatre discussing or thinking about – what is the one take away message that you hope that they leave with? And a follow up to that, why do you believe everyone needs to see this work?
As I have said before: I fundamentally believe theatre’s role is not to provide answers or messages but to challenge and subvert and to create questions. Firstly I hope that audiences stay and discuss and think with us! But if they can’t/won’t I hope they go away discussing the nature of perspective, empathy, prejudice, the role of skin colour/accent in the way we process a story, “otherness”, a new perspective on terrorism, whatever confronted them most about the show. I don’t believe anyone who sees the show won’t be confronted by something and I hope everyone comes away talking about something they wouldn’t have talked about before! I don’t believe everyone needs to see this show. I do believe that anyone who has been directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of Osama Bin Laden, anyone who is scared about how the world looks right now, anyone who has or hasn’t yet questioned how the stories of Osama and others are portrayed in the media, anyone who has or hasn’t yet questioned their role in the actions of their government abroad, anyone interested in politics, terrorism, security studies, international relations or 20th Century History needs to see this show. Why? Because there is no-one else in the world (I’ve looked) who is risking telling this story in this way without judgement and providing the space to debate anything it brings up. And this story brings up almost every concern we are dealing with currently in most places in the world. This is genuinely the only experience like this.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite production you have ever seen?
The Encounter by Theatre Complicité. A sublime 2.5 hour storytelling show (that feels like 20 minutes) using binaural sound to transport you to the Amazon rainforest while creating an existential debate. Unforgettable.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
To my wife who is doing a conference in Brisbane, we haven’t seen each other in 2 months. I only wish our dogs were there too…
Dream show to perform in?
Anything by Complicité!
Plays or musicals?
Broadly I prefer plays but some musicals are pure magic! My guilty pleasure is Legally Blonde: The Musical….
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Sailing. I can’t be on the water for long enough. I’ve sailed a tall ship (the Bark Europa) to Antarctica and from Cape Town to Ascension Island and I am learning to sail two handers at the moment.
What’s next for you after this show?
Our next show is in research phase right now. It’s about Toxic Masculinity. And we are scared of what we might discover about ourselves…
Tickets to Bin Laden: The One Man Show in Sydney are available here