I HAVE MET THE ENEMY (and the enemy is us)

Sophia Kypriotis reviews the immersive revelation of UK arms dealings held in Byker Community Centre...

Sophia Kypriotis
20th November 2019
image: Pamela Raith
Right now UK-made fighter jets are dropping UK-made bombs over Yemen and CS grenades made in a British factory are being used against pro-democracy campaigns in Hong Kong, and in Byker Community Centre an arms sale is being held.

Walking into the production, we were transported into an arms sale with 'canapes’ and ‘champagne’ on offer, while classical music played in the background. It was an absurd, futurist, whimsical kind of wonderland.  Arms were promoted as being able to “play music and attack at the same time”, launched from Starbucks and pitches for new weapons ended with “Namaste”. While the subject matter is one that requires serious attention, Mo’min Swaitat, Alexander Ely and Shatha Altowai added lightness, warmth and humour into the mix, and the Byker cast were exceptional in conveying their stories.

Two years in the making, I HAVE MET THE ENEMY (and the enemy is us), was originally a play about the arms trade but due to the poignance of the actor’s experiences, it transformed into exploring their personal stories of being affected by the arms industry. The production revolves around Mo’min, a Palestinian actor from the West Bank, Alex, an ex-British soldier from South Wales and Shatha, an artist from Yemen. Observing how these three, seemingly distant, stories all flow into the same river was absorbing and moving. Co-director Evie Manning underlines this: “standing back and looking at the whole journey to make something and how it kept shifting and responding to being in a room with people, and that’s when you see the layers”.

The production was heavily layered and intricate; it was clear how much planning and rehearsal went into it, while remaining fresh and authentic. The audience was one of these layers, interacting with the actors from the start and even following them on a military drill. This meant we had no choice but for the global issue of the arms trade to become local and personal; it was right in front of us in Byker community centre. Despite the fragmentation explored by Mo’min, Alex and Shatha, writer Hassan Mahamdallie powerfully establishes a sense of unity through the interweaving of their stories. Mo’min and Alex’s shared love of techno music acts as unifying motif, emphasising that Jenin and Port Talbot are not so far apart.

We had no choice but for the global issue of the arms trade to become local and personal; it was right in front of us and localised in the community centre

The audience were invited to take a seat at the table, Shatha’s reimagined table from her destroyed home. This was the most powerful element of the performance for me. Being welcomed at her table, with ‘chocolate’, ‘nuts’ and ‘tea’ laid out in front of us felt like we really were inside her home. It felt special, I felt like her guest. Despite being broadcast on a screen from Yemen, I felt close to Shatha and it is art that channels this connection; “[her] painting could fly to different continents without the need of passport or visa…we can still be connected; we can still exchange messages of peace through art…art can break borders as it has always been the trigger of our evolutionary souls in this infinite universe.” (Shatha)

I HAVE MET THE ENEMY (and the enemy is us) expresses the powerful unity between the actors as well as the production itself, given that it is a collaboration piece between Common Wealth, Northern Stage and Comra Films, a Yemeni film company. These joined forces remind us that, as co-director says, the production is "about the arms trade but it’s also about being human and finding ways to connect."

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