by Gareth Miles Axenderrie
Everybody remembers where they were? That day, sixteen years ago, when television screens around the world showed rolling live footage of the Manhattan skyline. A plume of smoke bellowed out of one of the World Trade Centres. Then an airplane struck the other. Then one fell. The other followed. New York no longer looked the same. We remember it vividly.
Actor Sam Redway also remembers where he was. In school, teachers and fellow pupils panicking as news of 9/11 reverberated throughout the world. He also remembers the images of one man broadcast everywhere in the days, weeks and months that followed. Osama bin Laden, the enemy of the United States and the western world.
What Redway also remembers is sitting on a train in 2011. Bin Laden had just been killed by American forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“There was a double page feature of Bin Laden’s life in the Guardian” says Redway. “Sat near me was a small child, who was punching each photo of Bin Laden to cheers from his family. I thought to myself, ‘what world do we live in where somebody’s death is celebrated by children?’”
It was this thought that inspired Redway to contact his friend Tyrrell Jones, and before they knew it, they had written Bin Laden: The One Man Show.
Since debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show has gained international acclaim, including at the San Diego International Fringe Festival and the Hollywood Fringe Festival. A thought-provoking, conscience shaking hour of theatre, it delivered once again in Cardiff’s Sherman.
Upon arrival, frontman Redway greats audience members in the theatre’s studio, offering a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. It’s intimate, he is dressed in black trousers and a white shirt, only sharing the stage with a table of crockery, a suitcase and a flipchart.
Redway introduces himself as ‘Abū’ (bin Laden’s assumed name), before asking the audience “What do you think of your government?”, “Who is completely satisfied with it?” and “Who would change the world c if they could?”. As he removes his shoes and socks, he explains that he is about to show us how we too can change the world in which we live.
From here on, Redway acts out the life of bin Laden. From his first marriage to his education, the play challenges what most don’t know about bin Laden’s ‘pre-most wanted’ life. He uses two members of the audience to help tell the story, both plucked against their will from the front row. One assumes the role of Najwa (bin Laden’s first wife) and the other Azzam (his teacher and mentor). Redway whispers lines to them whilst coping with any reluctance perfectly, blending ad-hoc humour and a piercing stare to make the interaction seamless.
His love story and education are abruptly halted by recollections of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jones and Redway’s writing doesn’t linger in history lessons for too long, constantly using his flipchart to plot a course toward changing the world for a better place.
Redway depicts bin Laden’s violent awakening as he holds a Kalashnikov rifle, imitating battles between the Mujahedeen and Soviet army. The table of crockery then becomes a militarised battlefield, with crumbs of digestive biscuits bombarding teacups, imitating mortar fire on Soviet military personnel.
As the character talks up revolution and a fairer world for its poorest, it’s difficult to hold onto the notion that it is bin Laden being portrayed in front of our eyes. This could be Che Guevara, Castro, Gandhi, Mandela or any other individual who has fought for social justice throughout history. Redway is blond haired and pale skinned, and as he talks about Jihad and Islam, one wonders how this would be interpreted if he were olive skinned with a long dark beard?
The second half of the play really challenges and pushes the audience to question their versions of reality of the last 30 years of history and American foreign affairs. The celebration of the downing of an American military helicopter in Somalia is our first notion of a shift away from the western interpretation of middle eastern conflicts. There’s sympathy portrayed for bin Laden as he is beaten back by the might of the United States. The line ‘If terrorism is protecting your wives and children, let history call us terrorists’ challenges the West’s very definition of bin Laden. The audience knows however that a conscious challenging shift is around the corner.
As Redway stands centre stage, bare-chested and in just his underwear, a single spotlight illuminates him. It is bin Laden’s moment of realisation. The battle for freedom must be taken to the west. Defence must become offence. He dresses, this time in the clothes of the Prophet Mohammed, and relays stories of car bombs outside western embassies, but as his tone becomes more excitable and celebratory, I must admit, I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat.
Then, he flips his flip chart. The first image, two towers. The second, emptiness. Silence fills the auditorium, as Redway stands smiling, chest protruding. Bin Laden has killed over 3,000 innocent people, but the audience who are mostly western, are now confronted with this freedom fighter challenging their perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil.
The play finishes with a warning that bin Laden’s name may or may not be remembered, but that no further terror attacks will come from him, but rather a now empowered Islamic world. And a simple line, “You can change the world.”
An applause was for the acting and writing, the style and the substance. Perhaps not the message and the celebration of the world’s most hated man. And yet, many were still unsure. They sat there, in silence, just contemplating how they now felt. Jones and Redway have written a well-researched a thought-provoking masterpiece. It is one man, centre stage, with a handful of props, a spotlight and small but effective use of music and sound. That man tells the story of another, but also questions the perspective of every other man and woman who watches it. They skirt a line that blurs art and storytelling with ideological provocation. It makes many, including myself, feel slightly uncomfortable. But then, that’s the whole purpose. A masterclass that everybody should see.