Pleasance Theatre, London – until 21 May 2017
Blood is thicker than water; family comes first. The idea that a relative takes precedence over friends or partners seems archaic and old school, yet it still holds fast today. But what if siblings grow apart or move to separate countries, can they still be expected to be an integral part of each other’s lives?
Sarah (Philippa Carson) and Thomas (Jack Hammett) certainly aren’t – after two years without seeing each other, Sarah returns to the family home and is surprised that Thomas has moved on with his life in a surprising and unexpected way. Not only has he adopted a new religion, but he has a new bride-to-be and is too embarrassed to reconcile his two separate worlds. Claudia Marinaro’s Becoming Mohammed traverses the tightrope of religion to bring people of different faiths and with different beliefs closer together.
Religion and politics, two of the most controversial topics of discussion. Theatre grapples with politics on a regular basis – the industry is often seen as a group of liberalist lefties that push boundaries, encourage freedom of speech and equality. It is refreshing to see a production that shines the spotlight on religion in such an exposing manner. Annemiek van Elst ensures that all elements around the Muslim faith are brought to the centre of the production – Sarah has embarrassingly little knowledge of the religious customs of both Aminah (Nadia Lamin) and her chaperone Musa (Jonah Fazel) and reacts like a petulant child for the majority of the production. The idea of fasting for Ramadan; the symbolism behind the hijab; the fact that Aminah cannot live with Thomas, or even be alone with him, before they are married are all alien and absurd in Sarah’s world. The first half of the show has an incendiary climax that ultimately results in Sarah walking back in and taking authority of her brother’s future.
It’s difficult not to emotionally react to the clash of worlds that Marinaro adeptly weaves together – van Elst allows the tension to bubble below the surface for so long that the resulting explosion is inevitably catastrophic. The build-up at times feels awkward and uneasy, as it should – the tug of war between sister and bride-to-be over Thomas’ affection is constantly in play. As Aminah, Lavin navigates this with a more mature and layered performance, consistently trying to keep the peace until the second half when petty squabbling falls on deaf ears. From comedic to blunt, subservient to frustrated, Lavin picks up on the complexity of her character and gets the audience on side at every point. Petulant sister Sarah (Carson) and stubborn brother Thomas (Hammett) lack this level of subtlety in their delivery, but nevertheless perform as a well-cast double act.
It is refreshing to see The Pleasance space be used to its full throughout the production. Bex Kemp’s set and van Elst’s blocking gives an illusion of space to the black box theatre, sparse furnishings indicating the vestiges of an old life currently transitioning into something new. The design competently reflects Thomas’ internal struggle, with the boxed-up memories of his childhood and the stained walls where pictures once hung. Scene changes are met with subtle backlighting from Rachel Sampley and reflective music from Jack Barton, all hinting at a past life discarded in a desperate attempt to discover a new identity, a new purpose. Under the watchful eye of teacher and friend Musa (Fazel), Thomas (Hammett) gradually moves into a new circle and begins to make ripples that are not always welcomed.
Becoming Mohammed isn’t afraid to be controversial, to highlight preconceptions and raise larger questions around faith, the perception of certain religions and the close-minded prejudices inherent within every character. There are some points at which the narrative is lost, the concept muddled, but van Elst navigates the actors through to a serene conclusion. Ultimately the two separate worlds can co-exist, linked by the very nature of humanity.