Extremism has been a hot topic for at least the last two decades and with every new attack, when innocent people are targeted and murdered again and again, people ask why and they ask how. The British theatre company Knaive Theatre brings its debut production to Sydney to provoke discussion about the backstory for one of the world’s most infamous terrorists.
Osama Bin Laden (Sam Redway) is remembered as the leader of the international terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda who was responsible for numerous terrorist attacks including bombings in London, Madrid, and Mumbai, and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City. But before all of that he was a new father and university student growing more frustrated with the way Afghanistan was being treated as a pawn for other nations’ greed. He joined the resistance against Russian invasion and the rest is history. Bloody, bloody history.
Bin Laden is framed as a self-help seminar about how ordinary people can learn how to change the world. It’s a covert explainer of how people are swayed by extremist ideology and shift from peaceful politics to violence. As a practise in context and compassion, it works to generate sympathy and understanding for the people who are pulled into dangerous and deadly organisations. The script, written by Redway and director Tyrrell Jones, is clever in the way it exposes the manipulation of language to hide terrorism in “resistance” and notions of creating a better world for future generations. The slope between government resistance and terrorism is a slippery one in the right environment, though perhaps a slippage too sudden in this representation.
Redway is energetic and charming solo on stage and he does well to fill the space with organise movement. His characterisation easily balances the heroic optimism and smarmy self-congratulatory attitude typical of professional public speakers. The stage is almost completely bare so, with a handful of props, Redway recreated a conference room complete with tea and biscuits, various war zones and skirmishes, and gaping spaces of internal conflict and epiphany. A heavy use of spotlights overemphasises the script’s didacticism but the inclusion of two unwitting audience members lightened feelings of listening to a personal manifesto.
New theatre company Knaive Theatre is clearly aiming for provocation, discomfort, and disagreement from their “unthinkable” production. Discussion and debate are blatantly encouraged by post-show debates hosted after every performance. But in their interest of shock value, Bin Laden proves reductive in key aspects of the story of Osama Bin Laden specifically, and contemporary terrorism more generally.
It is deeply troubling to see a production acknowledge the way whiteness makes extremism palatable while failing to critically engage with or interrogate that reality. The “colourblind” approach to discussions of extremism and terrorism is at a fundamental dissonance with the social, cultural, and political currents that funnel people into war and violence. To represent an international terrorist in an Arab-to-white race swap seems to argue for the provocative and destabilising image of white terrorism as a gateway for sympathy and compassion into extremism ideology. However, to pretend that extremism is a problem outside of whiteness, particularly at a time when the Australian government passes motions in support of white supremacist ideology, Australian senators call for anti-Muslim and racist immigration policies in response to the Christchurch massacre, and an Australian political part is garnering support from far-right pro-gun organisations, is hugely insensitive and unsettling. White supremacy and far-right extremism exist and are presented in mainstream media as familiar, understandable, and forgivable ideologies already. Whitewashing Osama Bin Laden merely demonstrates a wilful ignorance of the state of hatred in our society and the conditions under which it thrives.
Bin Laden is a complicated piece of political drama but perhaps the challenges arise more glaringly from the production rather than its content. The world needs more empathy but the transposition of Osama Bin Laden’s rise to infamy onto a white man operates as thought experiment into the privileges of power and perspective instead of a confronting insight.
Bin Laden is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from April 3rd – 6th