Seeing a show title Bin Laden: The One Man Show initially filled me with caution. Especially in light of recent events in Christchurch, would such a show be appropriate and not just offensive? Would this be a farcical mockery of Osama Bin Laden or would it try and justify the actions that he took? As it turns out, it was neither.
Instead, what we saw was a remarkable, thought provoking piece of theatre that neither glorified nor mocked Bin Laden. Instead, it told the story of his life in a way that Western audiences could understand.
After a sell out Edinburgh Fringe run and a highly successful international tour, Knaïve Theatre’s award winning Bin Laden: The One Man Show is currently touring Australia. This provocative production tells the story of the world’s most well-known terrorist and provides detail on a story that not many in the Western world know or understand.
Upon entering, co-writer and performer, Sam Redway greets the audience by offering cups of tea and leading a discussion on the state of politics both here in Australia and further abroad. This gradually transitions into a performance where Bin Laden, or Abu, is stylised after a motivational speaker. With a distinct nod to Ted Talks, Abu tells his story of falling in love, starting a family, attending university, and beginning to see the inequalities present in the Middle East. As the story unfolds, we see someone who has come from a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia grow and change into the man who created al-Qaeda and plotted numerous large- and small-scale terrorist attacks.
Sam’s performance as Abu is, to say the least, noteworthy. Through collaboration with director and fellow writer, Tyrrell Jones, Sam has been able to bring to the fore the man behind the scary façade that we in the West have always been shown. The lack of Islamic stereotypes and the heavy focus on Western references allowed the audience to connect with Sam’s performance and made Bin Laden more everyday rather than a distant, mythical creature used to scare children. Both Tyrrell’s directing and Sam’s acting work beautifully together to allow the audience to make their own judgements about Bin Laden’s actions throughout his life and what led him to become the tyrant that we know.
Areas of stagecraft such as costume, set and sound worked well to reinforce the motivational speaker style of the show, although there were moments when the background sound could have been better balanced to ensure the audience could hear Sam’s performance effectively throughout. What was particularly impressive was the lighting. Although seemingly simple, it emphasised the Ted Talk style with clear highlights on the speaker, display board, and drinks table and was able to both subtly and obviously change to emphasis the mood and setting.
It is obvious that both Sam and Tyrrell are aware that the piece of theatre they have created is thought provoking as evidenced by the post-show discussion they lead where audiences are invited to ask questions about the performance but also to share their thoughts, understandings and opinions. Although this discussion can become quite intense and even heated, Sam and Tyrrell took the time to explain their thought processes and how, at no point, where they trying to glorify Bin Laden. Instead, it seems, they tried to show that he was still a human.
By drawing on US Congress reports and stories told by Bin Laden’s family, Sam and Tyrrell have been able to piece together the story of Bin Laden and, in doing so, have managed to shine a spotlight on how Western powers have helped to cause great damage throughout the Middle East. Although not attempting to shift the blame off Osama Bin Laden, this work draws our attention into how, through the world that we live in, seemingly upright citizens can become fanatical, misguided extremists.