Saturday, August 5, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Deadly Dialogues' at C Venue 34, 5th August 2017

Deadly Dialogues reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Nazish Khan's Deadly Dialogues feels like theatre as mosaic: every tiny piece a vital contribution to the whole. The play, presented by the Quilliam counter-extremisim organisation, is the product of two years spent researching stories of radicalisation, religious taboos and blasphemies within Islam, and eyewitness accounts from refugees driven from their homes by ISIS. It's an ambitious dramatic undertaking, setting out to diagnose the roots of contemporary extremism and place it within the context of 1,300 years of Islamic cultural history.

Four performers: Sarah Agha, Clive Keene, Faaiz Mbelizi and Rebecca Banatvala, play a variety of characters, geographically distant from each other yet woven into the same religious tapestry. We meet a young man suffering from mental illness "his inner djinns", an agoraphobic mother escaping her husband's suicide via shopping TV, a black prisoner converting to Islam because they'll 'take care of you in here', a teenage girl escaping humiliation via the false purity of radicalism, a Syrian refugee transplanted to Dartford who cannot escape her trauma and, somewhere in the background, the 'Muslim Banksy', taking a one man stand against aniconism. 

These characters flit in and out of the action like shuffled cards, Khan's narrative strands winding in and around one another in service of a greater whole. Director Jessica Lazar fluidly transitions between these elements with a skill that looks casual, but must be an incredibly tricky balancing act. Naturally, this dramatic style requires that the audience pay attention, especially as characters aren't formally introduced, the costumes remain static throughout and scenery is restricted to a small mirrored box.

On top of all that most of the play is in free verse. On one hand this lyrical style elevates the play to poetry but on the other puts one more barrier between audience and character. Basically, you're going to get as much out of Deadly Dialogues as you put in - the show demanding the audience mentally plug in to what they're trying to communicate.

I'm pretty damn far from being an expert on Islam and I was conscious throughout that various elements were zipping straight over my head. But there was an absolute tonne that was absolutely fascinating. Prime among these was approaching ISIS propaganda as psychologically equivalent to self-help advertainment. Each offers unrealistic promises, memorable catchphrases and subtly warps the truth, one offering paradise via a tighter bum, and the other by explosive martyrdom. 

I also adored the complex depiction of a teenage girl's radicalisation and decision to travel to ISIS controlled Syria, depicting a logical chain of progression that begins in intense shame, progresses through a desire to purify and reinvent oneself and concludes in becoming a wall-eyed zealot. In this particular narrative strand, the show proves its bravery by getting properly under the skin of the character, giving her the opportunity to explain herself without censorship. Her ideological purity is shown as genuinely (and appropriately) seductive - who wouldn't want to go from a boring nobody to someone whose online videos are viewed by millions and discussed on ten o'clock news?

It's also wonderfully performed. Clive Keene, who was so great covering similar territory in Theatre503's BU21 last year, excels in conveying excited fervour, fierce inner torment and a cool, almost zen, calmness in various scenes. The other obvious highlight is Rebecca Banatvala, who has a piercing gaze that feels as if it could bore through steel plating, excelling both as a distracted and traumatised mother and the would-be teenage Jihadi wife.

The cherry on top of this bounty of theatrical riches is the minimalist yet powerful staging. The action takes place upon a pure white square that appears to have burst from tessellated Islamic tiling - as if what's happening in front of us represents some core of understanding. Hanging from the four corners are white sheets, within which the characters entangle themselves and create striking tableaux. 

My only criticism is that the 'Islamic Banksy' strand revolves around imagery in Islam, and the austere staging means we don't actually get to see the pictures the characters discuss. I guess you'd be inviting controversy (and, let's face it, danger) if we could actually see the medieval portrait of the Prophet Muhammed that a character describes, but it feels like the one punch the play pulls. 

Deadly Dialogues is a piece of drama that you can't passively consume, which will mean audience mileage will vary. For it to work you have to be engaged and inquisitive, conducting your own internal debate in parallel with the characters. Achieve that and countless theatrical delights await you. I wish all the plays I saw were this switched on.

Deadly Dialogues is at the C Venue 34 until 28 August. Details here.

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