Story of an 'ill-favoured son' explored in 'Bin Laden: The One Man Show'

Bin Laden: The One Man Show. Written by Sam Redway and Tyrrell Jones. Performed by Sam Redway. March 26-30, The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. Tickets on 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Pop quiz: if you had to name three events that shaped the modern world, what would they be? Your list may differ from mine - which includes 2008’s Global Financial Crisis and the release of Mad Max: Fury Road - but I bet both lists featured 9/11.

'We were terrified,' performer Sam Redway (pictured) says of performing the show in the US. Photo: Supplied

'We were terrified,' performer Sam Redway (pictured) says of performing the show in the US. Photo: Supplied

The aftershocks of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers are still felt today, in a society of increased security and surveillance. Anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise, and civilians tacitly accept loss of privacy as the cost of safety.

After orchestrating 9/11, Islamic extremist Osama Bin Laden became the target of Western grief and rage. Now he (or at least, his portrayal by Sam Redway) will be touring Australia for Bin Laden: The One Man Show.

It wasn’t until the day Bin Laden died in 2011 that Redway began to learn more about him through newspaper coverage. While reading, Redway was struck by an image of a young boy gleefully punch a picture of Bin Laden, laughing and yelling, “You’re dead, you’re dead.”

Redway was inspired by the demonisation of Bin Laden in the near-decade he’d eluded capture and wanted to explore the contrast between Bin Laden’s monstrous status and the reality of him as “a human … with a bad back".

At the time, Redway and his writing partner (and now director) Tyrrell Jones were also, he adds, “very unemployed".

Feeling that “understanding the reasons for [unforgivable things] is a worthwhile task”, they started writing Bin Laden. The one-man play ended up at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has since toured to critical acclaim in Britain (twice) and the US.

Redway and Jones’s work is provocative, topical, and explicitly humanitarian (Knaïve Theatre's next topics include climate change and toxic masculinity). It also exploits theatre as “a completely different experience of art … [due to] there being a live audience that you can reach out and touch".

Performer Sam Redway, pictured, says the show's polarising material ignited so much discussion that an audience debate became a permanent part of the program. Photo: Supplied

Performer Sam Redway, pictured, says the show's polarising material ignited so much discussion that an audience debate became a permanent part of the program. Photo: Supplied

They met working on The World at Your Feet with The Barbican Theatre - Plymouth, an enormous, interactive production with a cast of 60. Audience members were processed and transported as refugees, and given the baggage and name tags of their assumed identities.

Although Bin Laden’s staging is pared down compared to World (Redway describes the Bin Laden set as reminiscent of a TEDx talk), the show is similar to World in that involves audience interaction: Jones facilitates a debate with the audience after each performance.

The debate wasn’t originally included in the runsheet, but the polarising material ignited so much discussion that Jones and Redway embedded it after only two performances.

Redway is gratified by the response to the work: “People really get what we’re trying to say-”

He corrects himself: “-what we’re trying to provoke.”

For Redway, the distinction is critical: this is not a didactic piece. Its only ask is that people critically confront their own assumptions.

He recounts early feedback, where audience members expressed relief over the play’s nuance: “Now ... we can talk about it without being labelled terrorist sympathisers.”

Despite a positive reception at home, however, Redway and Jones had concerns about exporting Bin Laden to the US: “We were terrified.”

To their relief, “no-one was angry”. As the nation directly struck by the attacks, the US “really wanted to talk about this. Their whole life had entirely shifted."

The material was particularly moving for post-combat veterans, helping them come to terms with their experiences.

The veterans knew that “no-one just picks up a gun for no reason … [But] they had no idea what the other people were fighting for. They weren’t told about that in their training.

“So when their compatriots died … it was an evil person killing their friends," Redway explains.

"[The show] allowed them to process their feelings. It was part of their grieving process.”

Redway’s overarching empathy is obvious, and Bin Laden’s sensitive treatment is supported by an immense amount of underlying research. Redway and Jones trawled CIA records, biographical accounts, and transcriptions of Bin Laden’s tapes.

Conscious of factors shaping Bin Laden’s jihad, Redway is as balanced as it’s possible to be. Bin Laden was the “ill-favoured son” of a man who passed on his fundamentalist beliefs before dying early. Ultimately Bin Laden was “a person who was doing what he saw was correct, what was right for the world” - albeit with devastating consequences.

Redway stresses that his identification with Bin Laden in the play only goes so far, however.

“There’s a couple of times where I can’t believe what I’m saying any more," he admits.

Intent aside - could casting Bin Laden as a blonde, blue-eyed Englishman “who looks a bit like Steve Jobs on a rough day” possibly be, well, tone deaf?

Redway acknowledges the fraught potential, but justifies his approach.

“On the day of the 11th of September 2001, the story of Osama Bin Laden became everyone’s story," he says.

“I believe that all stories are for everyone, so long as you accept your place within that story.”

Redway is conscious of elevating others’ perspectives through his relative privilege (and heightened audience trust) as a white, male performer.

There is a moment when the audience comes face to face with the fact they have heard Bin Laden's word's differently coming from a white person's mouth. That is an uncomfortable realisation for many people.

Redway elaborates that Bin Laden, “Wouldn’t work as a show if the audience was watching [an Arab actor in] it and thinking, You probably believe that.”

Disagree? Give the man a piece of your mind yourself. It might not make for easy viewing but in a world undeniably shaped by the War on Terror, Bin Laden could well be worth the ticket price.