Every year during the Fringe, Holden Street Theatres house a range of high quality and often compelling pieces of theatre. This year is no exception, particularly when it comes to Knaïve Theatre’s one-man show Bin Laden.
Any piece of art centered around such timely and delicate subject matter – terrorism, and more specifically the attack of the Twin Towers – can either help or hinder the way we perceive wider issues. There is always a risk when discussing such themes, but Bin Laden gets the biscuit. Sam Redway, who plays Osama Bin Laden, and Tyrell Jones, the co-creator and director, do a marvelous job in portraying the life of the West’s most infamous enemy. The depth, nuance, and delivery of this work are of the highest standard. I guarantee that this production sits outside any expectations you form prior to seeing it.
Bin Laden will move you in a variety of ways. In the same scene, you will laugh and be overcome with a unique kind of sadness – one that is slightly removed but still vivid. References to our pop culture icons such as Aladdin, Harry Potter, and Braveheart draw us in, allowing us to feel a true familiarity with the production, even though Bin Laden’s world is far from what we know. Redway’s engaging interaction with the audience makes the character of Bin Laden appear personable, and the use of cliché American victory music – the patriotic kind that is used to romanticise the idea of war and war-torn victory – when Bin Laden is triumphant confuses our pre-set alliances and understandings of good and evil.
The casting is initially the most surprising aspect of this piece of theatre. The role of Bin Laden is filled by Redway, a very fair Anglo-Saxon man: this instantly distances us for our stereotypical profiling of the ‘terrorist’ character. This casting decision dissolves some resistance Western audiences may have in receiving and properly processing Bin Laden’s story; even though we may not like to acknowledge it, the casting made the subject matter more comfortable, allowing us to feel ‘ok’ about sympathising with the character of Bin Laden. Redway’s spectacular performance in this role makes us painfully aware of our assumptions and perspectives, particularly towards physical profiling, and how this influences our reception of a story.
The play was structured so that Bin Laden is giving the audience a lecture on his life, almost like a seminar for success. The set was familiar, as it was simply a white man standing in a suit, with a board and markers to his right, and a tea and coffee station to his left. This space was non-threatening, though the props and costumes that appeared as the production progressed – such as a gun or a headscarf – served as key symbols that draw on the West’s indicators of terror, slowly transporting audiences away from the safety of the seminar space.
It is important to note that this production is written with immense sensitivity and with the aid of thorough research. This work does not support Bin Laden’s actions, nor does it condone his extremist viewpoints: it simply provides a platform for us to see Bin Laden as a complete human – as a student, a husband, a father, a freedom fighter and a terrorist. This encourages us to acknowledge that rebellions and extremist viewpoints are not born from nothing, but are a reaction, and not always the correct one, to tensions and experiences.
Bin Laden provides an exploration that is complex and stimulating. The fact that audiences can sympathise with Bin Laden’s character, and then walk away from this production without feeling judgment, offense or anger proves the quality and balance in this show.
At the show’s conclusion, when the lights come up, and Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly With Me’ starts playing in the background, you realise that this exquisite and intelligent piece of theatre subtly worked its way under your skin, leaving you with chills and a deeper understanding of the world we live in.
Words by Michelle Wakim
You can catch Bin Laden: The One Man Show at Holden Street Theatres from the 12th-17th of March. You can find more information and buy tickets here.