Becoming Mohammed by Claudia Marinaro packs an unexpected punch. On the surface a relatively straightforward family drama, on another, deeper level, it forces us to question our own assumptions and what’s led us to form these opinions in the first place.
The story’s based on director Annemiek van Elst’s real-life family experience, and sees Sarah (Philippa Carson) return home after living abroad for two years, looking forward to indulging in a bit of nostalgia with her brother Thomas (Jack Hammett). But when she learns he’s become a Muslim in her absence, a horrified Sarah does all she can to talk him out of it, assuming he’s been brainwashed by new best friend Musa (Jonah Fazel) and his sister – now Thomas’ fiancée – Aminah (Nadia Lamin).
With time and understanding, Sarah and Thomas set out on the road to resolving their family drama. But there’s a bigger conflict brewing, as an enthusiastic Thomas attempts to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims within the local community, not realising he’s fighting a losing battle against the ignorance and fear that’s become such a natural part of our society we barely notice it any more. Musa and Aminah, on the other hand, exude a weary resignation to the prejudice against them and it’s perhaps this that hits hardest – the fact that an entire section of society feels there’s no point standing up for themselves because nothing will ever change.
In trying to shed a little light on what Islam is really all about, Marinaro has been careful to create well-rounded characters and a realistic portrayal of Muslim culture. So Aminah can’t be alone with Thomas without a chaperone until they’re married, and won’t let Sarah wear heels to visit the mosque because they “make you walk a certain way” – but all three Muslim characters also frequently swear like troopers and listen to the likes of Beyonce and Coolio. It’s interesting too to see Aminah go from shy bride-to-be in Act 1 to by far the strongest personality in Act 2, with Nadia Lamin revelling in her character’s transformation and delivering some brilliant one-liners as she figuratively bangs everyone else’s heads together. In direct contrast, Jonah Fazel’s Musa shifts from being a bit of a joker early on to take a more confrontational position when he sees his position as spokesman for the Muslim community threatened by his own protege.
While there’s a surprising amount of humour in the play (yet another assumption shattered – why should we be surprised that a play about Islam is funny?), there are also some really touching scenes between Jack Hammett and Philippa Carson as the estranged siblings. Sarah’s visit has been prompted by Thomas’ plans to sell their family home; they’re surrounded throughout by plastic boxes filled with childhood memories. It soon becomes clear that Sarah’s main concern isn’t really that her brother’s being radicalised; it’s a basic human fear of losing him to a world that she doesn’t understand. The problem is, he’s so excited about his new life that he’s blind to her vulnerability – and so the distance between them grows ever greater.
Becoming Mohammed may be based on one family’s story, but it’s representative of many more. The play shows how far we still have to go, not only in our understanding of Muslim culture, but in breaking down the stereotypes associated with it. Only by challenging the idea of “us and them” can society – and we as individuals – move forward together.
Becoming Mohammed is at The Pleasance until 21st May. There are post-show discussions every Friday.