Smoke fills the small studio, the lights dim and the room falls silent as the audience is transported away from London to a stage in Ramallah. Thus begins the first scene of playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak's 90-minute monologue taking the audience on a journey through four different scenarios laden with political undertones and masked in humour.
Love, Bombs and Apples is beginning its 4-week run at the Arcola Theatre, London, after touring the country following its positive reception at the Shubbak Festival last year. It's a one-man show starring actor Asif Khan who transforms himself into four different characters and plots, each with their own unique, moral-driven endings.
The first scene sees a struggling Palestinian actor who meets an English girl he wants to be intimate with. He takes her to the Separation Wall expecting no one to be there so late at night but his hopes are dashed as Israeli soldiers ridicule the couple and their date comes to an end.
With a swift costume change, the second scene introduces the audience to awkward Sajid, an aspiring Pakistani novelist with an insight into terrorism who decides to document his opinions in a large novel that he thinks will be the defining book of post-9/11 literature. However, the police are soon on his doorstep to arrest him under the Terrorism Act for writing a terror manual, something which he has to deny.
The penultimate character is a young Muslim from Bradford who is obsessed with the advent of ISIS. And the IPhone. Juggling the paradigm of being Muslim and British we see the youth yawning at sermons in the mosque but becoming animated with his trips to the Apple store. He then blurs his two passions together, accusing Westfield of recruiting British Muslims to travel to Syria by attracting them to the newest IPhone.
The final act sees Jewish New Yorker Isaac Levy caught between the views of his ultra-Zionist father, a member of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major pro-Israel lobby group), and his liberal Jewish girlfriend Sarah, who is a pro-Palestinian activist. He is faced with the dilemma of which ideological side his loyalties will lean towards between two people he loves; a dilemma which Asif Khan ends on as the stage darkens and the audience erupts in tumultuous applause.
Bookended by the issue of Palestine, the subject matter of the monologue is humorous, human-inspired contexts that depart from the darker tales which usually convey the realities of Palestinians or terror-related stories. Performed by Khan with a fervour that does not falter to his last line, it is mostly a comedic spectacle; interwoven within the dialogue are delicate moments that cause the audience to grapple with the important context upon which each act is based.
This is essentially the intention of playwright Hassan Abdelrazzak. Born in Prague to Iraqi parents, he continued to write even while studying molecular biology. He was bitten by the theatre bug with his first play, Baghdad Wedding, performed at the Soho Theatre in 2007 and followed that by producing The Prophet at the Gate Theatre in 2012; in 2015 he was commissioned to write a play for 35 actors by the Kevin Spacey Foundation in the UAE. His writings are often influenced by his Muslim and Middle Eastern background but his plays are not made solely for that specific demographic. For Abdelrazzak, audiences who don't necessarily know enough about the Middle East or have only heard snippets from the news are of special interest. "As the region faces the usual negativity," he explains, "so it's great for an audience to spend time with human beings and their stories by making them laugh and interacting with them."
Israel's wars against Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2014 influenced him to include Palestine as the bookends of the play. Gaza under bombardment coupled with personal anecdotes on Palestine from friends' personal experiences, moulded the themes of human experiences in extreme circumstances through the medium of comedy and performance. All the characters are based on people drawn from real life, making the monologue a unique, personalised piece for the audience members to draw from.
It was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where Abdelrazzak was an attached writer for a year, that he met Asif Khan and wrote the beginnings of Love, Bombs and Apples for him to perform as his final year showpiece. Through its success at RADA, the two went on to develop the play, exploring the characters and their contexts fully to see how the show could be best performed with the important subject matter they convey. Their belief in marrying current issues with shared experiences is a testament to the show's success, attracting audiences from all backgrounds who are able to appreciate the nuances that the play promotes.
For Khan, performing the monologue has been daunting. "It's been the most challenging theatre performance I have had to do because it's just me for 90 minutes and the complicated dense language and politics in there mean you have a big responsibility to entertain and also give across a message." Seeing audiences react positively and being provoked into necessary discussions is important for him: "As a British Muslim there are politics in there that affect me and I feel passionate about."
The show is a chance for Khan and Abdelrazzak to tell their own story as Muslims through a platform appreciated across the spectrum. "As British Muslims we are sick of other people telling the world who Muslims are or making documentaries about us," says Khan. "Just let us tell our own stories. We're telling our own stories in the way we want to and showing the world that Muslims aren't all terrorists or desperately trying to join ISIS or spread Sharia Law. We just want to have pizza and watch telly and do normal things." This message will no doubt ring true for many British Muslims who share Khan's sentiments but who do not necessarily have the tools to advocate a position of normality because, quite simply, no one is listening. For the actor, the arts are platforms that can truly break down negative stereotypes and create dialogue. Anyone can connect to the characters because they essentially want what all human beings want. Through these simple objectives which everyone can accept, the politics flow naturally through the writing and in turn cause people to become empathetic to those with whom they may not have shared such feelings previously.
However, many Muslims do not see the arts as a positive step in elevating their voices where perhaps a lot of progression could be made on a more human level. "You don't get many Muslims in the arts or you just don't hear about them," says Khan. "The arts are where you can connect with people and this may be the first time for people to connect with Muslim characters or subject matters that concern Muslims." He believes that more British Muslims should adopt these mediums to become role models and show the rest of the community that they can be both British and Muslim without too much difficulty.
Themes like pleasure, fame, relationships and materialism are things that everyone can relate to. By first placing the audience on the same page and then introducing them to the important morals that the characters evoke, discussions become more open and honest. You can laugh but you also need to have an open mind to understand what Hassan Abdelrazzak wants you to leave the theatre with. From the Palestinian actor who just wants instant gratification against the backdrop of the ongoing Israeli occupation; the aspiring novelist with an avid interest in the War on Terror; the Bradford youth itching to have the newest IPhone but holding on to his strong Muslim identity; and the Jewish New Yorker trying to keep his family together, the main point that surfaces above all is the fact that they – we — are all human beings underneath the layers of our multiple and sometimes complex identities.