Bismillah! An Isis Tragicomedy is a funny and sympathetic exploration of disenfranchisement in modern Britain at this year’s VAULT Festival.
Matthew Greenhough’s two-hander, originally performed in 2015, follows the unlikely bonding of two British men in a basement in Iraq. Dean (played by Greenhough) is a mouthy Queen fan from Leeds who is being held captive by the Islamic State. His gun wielding guard Danny (Elliot Liburd) is a radicalised Londoner. The script broaches on hugely pressing issues of inequality, racism and a generation of young men who feel left behind. The play doesn’t fully get its hands stuck into these themes as much as it could have, but it is a tragicomedy after all – and to have an audience laughing in a show about terrorism is a ballsy move to be applauded. Greenhough employs comedy as a powerful tool that allows us to challenge deep rooted stereotypes, poke fun at the things that scare us and bridge huge ideological gaps.
Coming in at over an hour long, the way Greenhough and Liburd keep up the energy throughout their volatile conversation is hugely impressive. While on different sides of the fight, both men are equally way in over their heads, scared and fruitlessly hoping one day they might be able to get home. Despite bouts of macho bravado, the power dynamic of guard and prisoner slips away almost completely as they share memories of life in England, the crushing boredom of working in Wetherspoons and the outrageous price of a meal-deal. The conversation could be as easily be happening in the corner of a pub as in a warzone.
The crux of Bismillah! is that Danny and Dean have far more that unites them than separates them. Greenhough veers delicately away from vilifying either character; they are sensitively drawn and well-rounded. Danny and Dean are allowed room to spin out their stories. To laugh, learn from each other, and to understand the complex series of events that led them to this point. They were disillusioned with their life back in England, they were angry, bored and they saw their future petering towards a dead end. Neither one has a hungering for violence; Dean joined the army after seeing an advert on the telly (because he wanted to make mates, and it seemed better than watching Jeremy Kyle on his mums sofa). Danny is terrified of having to kill someone to prove his loyalty. Both, ultimately, had no idea what they were getting into.
Bismillah! is extremely entertaining, subversive and most importantly opens up conversation. A fantastic fringe offering from a young company which I’m sure has a lot more to offer the London theatre scene.