Why play about the impact of the arms trade on individuals will feature techno music
Why play about the impact of the arms trade on individuals will feature techno music

Despite heated political debate, Britain is easily portrayed as a country at peace. It hasn’t been under direct and sustained attack by a foreign enemy since the Blitz in 1940-41.

But the country’s involvement in distant wars through its armed forces and lucrative arms industry is another matter.

This is explored in a new show called I Have Met the Enemy (and the enemy is us), a stand-out in Northern Stage’s autumn season for several reasons.

Firstly, it features a local community cast and the acting debut of ex-soldier Alex Eley, who served in Afghanistan.

Secondly, it is to premiere not in the theatre but at bustling Byker Community Centre, where local people have had a hand in making it.

Mo’min Swaitat and Alex Eley, who are starring in I Have Met The Enemy
(Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

And thirdly, it is the first time Northern Stage has joined forces with Common Wealth, a Bradford theatre company which began life in 2008 in a DIY fashion with zilch funding but “massive passion and ambition” for taking theatre to places it doesn’t normally reach.

In fact, it tends to avoid conventional theatres altogether.

“We work in communities where people might not go to a theatre,” explains Rhiannon White, who co-founded the company with Evie Manning.

“Our mission is to make work that’s relevant and about our times, that raises questions and speaks to the heart of people and place.

“What we’re interested in is people making decisions and being part of the story. The audience can sit still, move around, lie down – I don’t care.”

With pounding techno music a vital ingredient of this new production, the urge to move around might be compelling.

The collaboration began, remembers Rhiannon, with a conversation in Edinburgh with Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell.

Rhiannon White, co-founder of Common Wealth

Rhiannon White, co-founder of Common Wealth
(Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

“He’d seen a show we did called No Guts, No Heart, No Glory (based on interviews with Muslim female boxers), and was interested in working in the same kind of places we work in and in the same way.

“Northern Stage was doing a lot of groundwork in Byker and so there was this rich opportunity to do something here. We’re interested in working-class places and stories.”

Around that time, a row about the arms trade blew up when it emerged that weapons manufacturer BAE Systems was a sponsor of The Great Exhibition of the North, about to start in Newcastle and Gateshead.

When several performers protested, the company withdrew its funding while pointing out that it employs more than 83,000 people.

Common Wealth was already sniffing around the arms trade because the UK had just regained its place as the world’s second biggest weapons exporter after the US, with sales in 2018 worth £14billion (with 80% of those earnings from the Middle East).

Rhiannon had also been speaking to a friend, Oday, who’d come to Wales from Syria. Asked what story he’d like to tell, he drew a simple guide to the fiendishly complex war in his homeland.

Mo’min Swaitat during rehearsals for I Have Met The Enemy

Mo’min Swaitat during rehearsals for I Have Met The Enemy
(Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

“For me, that was quite a powerful moment.”

A production that raised questions about the arms trade seemed topical and interesting.

“We invited people who had some connection to it or whose lives had been affected, who’d maybe had family members in the armed services, to come and see us.

“We were interested in lived experience of the arms trade that looms over all of us.”

Among those invited to contribute stories were residents of Avondale House in Byker, run by a charity which helps ex-service personnel adapt to civilian life.

During each performance the two protagonists will invite audience members to join them on what the producers call “a personal and political journey into the darkest corners of what makes Britain tick”.

UK-based Palestinian actor Mo’min Swaitat and ex-soldier Alex share a love of techno music, but have had different experiences of conflict.

Alex, a Welshman from Port Talbot, joined the army at 17 and did two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

“I have no experience of acting,” he admits, “but I can tell my story of a British soldier in a conflict area and say what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”

Alex Eley during rehearsals for I Have Met The Enemy

Alex Eley during rehearsals for I Have Met The Enemy
(Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

Alex says that in uniform he was motivated not by a wish to attack, but to defend people and their communities. Not everything he saw he felt was militarily justified.

“Because of Afghanistan, because of my experience, I got PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I got the first symptoms of paranoia and depression in 2015-16 and was discharged from the military on medical grounds.

“I ended up being a drug addict and alcoholic basically. I think it was trauma. It was what I was doing to mask my emotions, but it took me a long time to realise that.”

While undergoing rehab in Liverpool, his love of music prompted a social worker to show him the call-out from Common Wealth. He was interested.

“I felt I was affected directly by the arms trade. I’ve been on the receiving end, so I felt I was the perfect person to deliver a story about conflict and trauma. I’ve seen good times and tough times.”

Rhiannon says the email from Alex was the “most profound” she’d ever received.

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“We talked for about two hours in Manchester. Out of all the people we saw, we felt he was most ready for this.”

Already on board was Mo’min, praised by Rhiannon as a performer with “great skill and range”, who has made a name for himself with theatre projects drawing attention not only to his people’s plight, but to their culture.

“I’m a Palestinian who grew up in the West Bank between the end of the first intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israel from 1987-93) and the start of the second intifada (2000-2005),” he says.

There were a few peaceful years but during the second intifada his home city of Jenin became a battleground. Israel, a lucrative market for UK arms, believed suicide bombers were setting off from its refugee camp to attack it.

Mo’min remembers Israeli soldiers everywhere and tanks rolling in. Their presence in the West Bank he calls “a colonisation”.

But rather than take up armed struggle he turned to theatre, driven by his love of storytelling. He joined the Freedom Theatre, set up to benefit children in the refugee camp.

He was rehearsing for a show when Freedom Theatre co-founder Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot dead in 2011.

The following year Mo’min enrolled at the London International School of Performing Arts (which closed last year) but the killing affected him, and he insists he bears a responsibility to his late teacher to carry on resisting violence by performing.

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“My story is of a young Bedouin who loved storytelling and music. My family’s heritage is in Bedouin music which you heard across the Arab world – Lebanon, Syria, Palestine Iraq.

“That’s what made me interested in music, but then I learned about industrial techno.”

It will form the soundtrack to the performance in a Byker hall transformed by artist Robbie Thompson’s 72 kinetic sculptures, one for each of the Typhoon fighter planes sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia – currently engaged in a war in neighbouring Yemen – in a deal struck in 2007.

A third performer, Yemeni artist Shatha Altowai, will also feature in the show through video footage created by Yemen-based Comra Films.

Shatha is a Yemeni artist who works collaboratively with her husband, a classical pianist. Each produces work inspired by their spouse.

As our guides, Alex, Mo’min and Shatha will share their stories and those of local people – woven into a script by playwright Hassan Mahamdallie – to show how our small country is mixed up in conflict around the world.

I Have Met the Enemy (and the enemy is us) has its premiere at Byker Community Centre, Headlam Street, Newcastle NE6 2DX on Wednesday, October 16, and runs until October 26. Tickets (£10 full price or £2 for Byker residents) from www.northernstage.co.uk or tel. 0191 2305151.