By Fred Pryce
For a show advertised with an ominous, shadowy profile of a notorious terrorist, Bin Laden: The One Man Show opens unexpectedly - with a chipper Englishman handing out tea and biscuits, and happily chatting to patrons filing in. He asks the audience if they aren’t satisfied with anything their government is doing.
“Refugees,” says one. He asks them to clarify what that means.
This open, warm interaction is key to easing them into thorny territory, as he introduces himself as Osama bin Laden, or Abu for short (like the monkey from Aladdin, he jokes). The show is then properly initiated, as a parody of a self-help presentation, including a book he’s touting titled ‘The Flight for Freedom’. A couple of broad steps on a flipboard like ‘Coping with Defeat’ and ‘Taking Action’ are then used as ironic chapter markings in the life of bin Laden, which develops in front of us from a first-person perspective. A couple of audience members are also picked to play key characters, most importantly his trusted confidant Azzam. The performance from that unwitting attendee ended up being the night’s highlight, as he delivered lines fed to him with remarkable willingness (though a keffiyeh placed on his head seemingly for a joke came across as a bit tactless). However, as the story becomes more serious, these comical elements become less prominent, until it’s clear they were only needed as stepping stones to dive into this heavy material, with the piece slowly growing less outwardly satirical.
Sam Redway’s performance as this strangely earnest bin Laden is the main attraction, as well as raising provocative questions. As he has said, “our lives have been deeply affected by the legacy of this man,” and the show is at the least a fascinating history lesson. Having devised the piece with Tyrrell Jones (who directs and does lighting), the pair clearly understand their privileged voices as white, Western men, and choose not to undermine or mock bin Laden’s character throughout - their condemnation is already implied. If a Muslim, Middle Eastern man performed the same piece with the same intent, I have no doubt the uproar would be immense. This idea ties directly into the show’s jabs at otherness, and the xenophobic narratives that have dominated our media since 9/11. In portraying the boogeyman of the 21st century as a conflicted hero (in his own eyes), it makes the radical step towards understanding an enemy’s perspective, something rarely done, if ever. Even then they must ignore and skip over so much to make him anything but repulsive and prevent walkouts, but the message is clear: everyone is human. Advertised for what is apparently the first time, the show features an unofficial ‘Act 2’ that has been present since they first staged it, an open debate with the audience that keeps with their offer of “a challenge... a space to discuss and reflect.”
It’s needed after an hour of intense depictions of war and terror. “Stand up,” bin Laden implores his audience at the end. “I dare you.” Those last three words seem a pithy summary.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.