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Matthew Greenhough: It’ll Be Alt-Right On The Night

By | Published on Monday 8 July 2019

Matthew Greenhough previously grabbed attention at the Edinburgh Fringe for the original incarnation of his show ‘Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy’, which has since evolved and toured to much acclaim, and which is back for another festival run at Underbelly this August.

But we’re really here to talk about his brand new show ‘It’ll Be Alt-Right On The Night’. Also exploring the common experiences but contrasting worldviews of its central characters, this new project began when Greenhough realised that he’d grown up in pretty much the same community as prominent alt-right/new-right YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson. How had they ended up with such diametrically opposed political opinions?

‘It’ll Be Alt-Right On The Night’ explores how people can respond so differently when faced with the same social problems, while also putting a critical spotlight on both the right and left of the political spectrum. And also finding time for some humour and jazz reinterpretations of punk classics.

I spoke to Matthew about the new show, his experiences working on ‘Bismillah!’, and the theatre company he now co-runs, Wound Up Theatre.

CC: What is the premise of ‘It’ll Be Alt-Right On The Night’?
MG: It’s about two lads – Greeny and Stevo – who grew up as punks; so squats, dumpster-diving and PVA-glue-spiked hair.

We go on a journey through their friendship, from childhood to their adult lives. They’re close as can be until their twenties, when they change… Or the world changes, they’re not quite sure which. By the time they are 28, one’s a ‘soyboy’, while the other’s a ‘fascist’. Meanwhile, in a world of trigger warnings and snowflakes, conservatism is the new punk rock.

It’s basically a story of social justice warriors and the far-right. With Greeny and Stevo stuck on different sides of a seemingly impassable ideological divide, we ask: can their friendship survive? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Are they stupid? Are they caught in a tide of unstoppable and destructive political populism? Or are they just a couple of nobheads?

In this time of ever-widening political polarisation, we wanted to explore where the palpable anger is coming from, what’s fuelling it, and what the realities are behind those opinions shat into the world in 240 characters.

We wanted to explore the reality behind the stereotypes of the ‘social justice warrior’ and the ‘alt-right’, in a way that we at Wound Up felt we could do best: with honesty, nuance, impartiality, live jazz renditions of seminal punk songs and some top quality dick jokes.

CC: Where did the idea to explore these themes come from?
MG: The initial idea was sparked when I was reading an article about an alt-right YouTuber called Paul Joseph Watson. He’s a huge figure in the ‘new right’ community. But also, like me, he’s a working class white lad from Sheffield with a big mouth.

I couldn’t believe that someone with such a similar background to me – we even both worked as cleaners in our late teens, and I’m pretty sure that was for the same company – could have developed such polar opposite opinions. It seemed bonkers. So I started watching his videos to try and work him out, because I found him fascinating: strangely charismatic, occasionally funny, and completely ideologically opposed to me in almost every way.

I branched out from there and explored more figures like him. And I found them equally fascinating. I also noticed that a lot of these far-right figures were actually recognising and explaining social problems that I’d also seen developing in our community. But then they’d run off on a tangent, ascribing blame and proposing solutions so far away from what I believed to be the truth, that the shift in gear was dizzying.

I became slightly hooked on these people and their YouTube videos, in a sort of masochistic way. And by this time their hateful rhetoric was starting to have real world implications, with things like Charlottesville and the #FreeTommyRobinson movement.

Throughout, and in despite of my opposition to these YouTubers’ beliefs, I completely empathised as to why this worldview would attract frustrated working class white lads looking for someone to blame. So I wanted to challenge what these people were saying, while also exploring why people still might be so willing to buy into their messages.

At the same time, I was also becoming frustrated with the left – especially in relation to Brexit and Trump – and the binary us-versus-them mentality that seemed to develop and then strengthen over the last few years.

It seemed like a complete hypocrisy from ‘my side’. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-lefty, and so it was beyond frustrating for me to see the left start to devour itself with its acidic moral superiority. I expected it of the right, but I felt let down by the left, and so I wanted to explore that hypocrisy in order to shine a light on it.

That was an important part of the project. My audience is inevitably going to be predominantly lefty, and there are endless shows bashing the right for left wing audiences to watch and agree the hell out of.

So while there’s some of that in the show, I also wanting to hold a mirror up to my liberal audience and show them how they might be, in someways, acting the same way as those they condemn. Then I discovered that the aforementioned Watson had made a video called ‘Conservatism Is The New Punk Rock, Deal With It’ and we were off!

CC: It sounds like your own life experiences have very much informed the piece. Is that right?
MG: Well, with the initial idea being sparked by that realisation of the surprising parallels between my life and that of a prominent alt-right YouTuber, it made sense to explore this topic from that angle.

So while the story is fictionalised, it is very much based on my experiences growing up, my love of punk, my acceptance into the punk scene in Sheffield in my teens, and how that shaped my life and worldview. I then developed that central idea with the show’s director, Jonny Kelly. There are many events from my life in the play and it’s strongly autobiographical.

Though I’m at pains to point out that, unlike my counterpart in the story, my mum never screwed some bloke called Greg at the Christmas party of the office where she worked at as a cleaner. She maintains they were just friends! I’m joking, obviously!

CC: The key question you are asking is how can people with similar life experiences – who have faced similar challenges – end up with such diametrically opposed worldviews. How did you set about answering that question?
MG: By simply exploring and presenting the characters’ lives as honestly and realistically as we could. I know people who are like both the characters in the show. And I’m like both the characters in the show. It was very cathartic to explore the inner lives of Greeny and Stevo, and to find out how they reached the places they find themselves in at the end of the play.

As with all my writing, humour is a major tool we’re using to get to the heart of the characters and their ideology. Because to me, it’s the best way of evoking empathy and getting the audience to relate to them. I thought that if I could do that with a radical Islamist in ‘Bismillah!’ I could probably do the same thing with a couple of opinionated tits from Sheffield.

Beyond the humour though, another element of this show is that the narrative – while long reaching and covering 21 years of the characters’ lives – is not actually presented in chronological order.

It’s structured to demonstrate how the characters find themselves where they are, by drawing parallels between the independent experiences of the characters, and well as drawing parallels to other experiences in their lives which lead them to different places.

CC: Do you think that a friendship can survive such a divide in worldview?
MG: The depressing thing is, right now, probably not… As conversations continue to become ever more polarised – and people get angrier and more cemented and blinkered in their worldview – empathy between people is being eroded at a terrifying rate. Why that is, well, that’s what the show explores, in the hope of trying to celebrate empathy over hate and anger. How things unfold in the semi-fictional world of ‘Alt-Right On The Night’ you’ll see in the show… Maybe we’ve solved it!

CC: Do you think political theatre can change the viewpoints of the audience? Is that your aim?
MG: I think it would be very arrogant to try to claim that we can change the viewpoint of an audience member and I wouldn’t be conceited enough to think I could. What I do think theatre can do, though – and more directly than any other medium – is be part of the dialogue.

Our aim is to be a positive part of the dialogue. We want to give people a space to explore the issues raised in the play without wanting to down some arsenic, because it’s all so bleak. We want to celebrate empathy, while being part of the conversation about political polarism, while also giving people an entertaining hour that maybe just makes them think a bit.

CC. Tell us about the musical element to the show? Why did you decide to reinterpret those punk rock classics as live jazz pieces?
MG: Punk music has been a passion of mine from my teens. The punk ethos and philosophy has been as impactful on me as anything else in my life. So in making a show inspired by my life, the musical element seemed like a no brainer – and especially after Watson made that ‘Conservatism Is The New Punk Rock’ video.

The jazz side came from the fact that I grew up with a lad called Steve who, while I was into punk, was a trumpet player who loved jazz. Beyond our differing musical tastes, our lives were very similar, and it always seemed odd to me that, despite our similarities, we had such different musical passions.

After I decided that the play was going to be about politics and punk, and when considering the story between my two protagonists, the parallel with mine and Steve’s musical tastes being so different despite our similar backgrounds kept on popping into my mind.

And eventually it became a part of the story. Then Jonny worked it into the design of the piece and the actual Steve – that’s Steve Wright – came on board to do the music in the show.

CC: Is the Edinburgh Fringe a good place to premiere a piece like this?
MG: We’ll tell you in September! But the Fringe has been good to us in the past. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the minor underdog success story of ‘Bismillah!’ at Fringe 2015. And it’s the biggest arts festival in the world, where else would you want to premiere your work?!

CC: Ah yes, ‘Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy’. How does the new piece compare to that show?
MG: It’s something of a spiritual sequel to ‘Bismillah!’ It explores some similar themes, of disenfranchisement and social alienation, even music, but from a very different perspective telling a very different story in a very different form.

Because I’ve written and performed both shows, the humour is similar. But while that was two people talking over an hour in real time, this is one person talking about two people – exploring 21 years of a friendship over one hour – scored to live jazz versions of punk songs. So it’s much more experimental. But hopefully just as funny and touching and silly and political, and it has as many laughs as ‘Bismillah!’ does.

‘Bismillah!’ is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s success and the response it got from people was beyond what I could have ever hoped for from the project. ‘Alt-Right’ has come about because of ‘Bismillah!’s success. But I’m confident they will complement each other well, existing together, but separately, as top notch insightful funny little shows about big seismic issues.

CC: For people who haven’t already seen ‘Bismillah!’, they have another chance at this year’s Fringe. What’s it about? What’s it like? Has it evolved since the first production?
MG: It’s a story of disenfranchisement, social alienation, radicalisation and the rock band Queen. It’s about Dean, who joined the army, and Danny, who joined the Islamic State. One’s from Leeds, the other’s from London.

It’s an hour with these lads, brought together in a holding cell in Northern Iraq as hostage and guard, as they explore the North/South divide, racism, Wetherspoons, fundamentalism and the rising price of a standard meal deal.

It was initially developed in 2015 with the Soho Young Writers company. It was then shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Award during a spit-and-saw-dust run at the Edinburgh Festival 2015, when it was directed by Justin Murray.

From there it was developed by both the wonderful Sevan Greene – now based in New York, the lucky swine! – and my current director Jonny, after which it had a critically acclaimed, award winning sell-out run at the Vault Festival in London, a follow-on run at the Pleasance’s year-round home in Islington, and then a national tour.

It has featured on both Sky News with Adam Boulton and London Live, and was praised by the UK muslim community, members of the armed forces, and even British journalist Sean Langan, who was held hostage by the Taliban for twelve weeks in 2008 and who praised it as reflecting his own experience of imprisonment.

Needless to say, it’s evolved quite a bit since its last time in Edinburgh. At the time their was a third character – which seems bonkers now! – and the politics were less nuanced and developed. What you’ll get this time is peak ‘Bismillah!’ at the top of it’s game!

CC: Tell us more about your company Wound Up Theatre.
MG: I created Wound Up in 2013 to produce my first ever play – ‘Delusions Of Adequacy’ at the PBH Free Fringe in 2013 – basically so that the flyer didn’t say “written by, performed by, produced by and presented by the world class egotist Matthew Greenhough”!

It then had a half-start as a proper company in 2015, when I used it as the header for that spit-and-sawdust proto-run of ‘Bismillah!’, which was produced by the wonderful Abee McCallum. However, at that point Wound Up was still a fragile baby bird of a company that was still basically just a header for my shows.

That changed in 2017, though. Having been introduced to Jonny, he came on board with the company, after we realised how compatible our creative and political views were, and how much we were enjoying working together getting ‘Bismillah!’ developed with Sevan.

Then we discovered our marvellous current producer Sofi Berenger, who made me and Jonny realise how inept we both were at running a company! So she came on board too, placed herself at the helm and we haven’t looked back since.

It’s rare to find people you’re so in tune with creatively and professionally, but I’m beyond lucky to have found Jonny and Sofi, who have turned my little vanity project into a legit company, a collective of three parts and – with that – a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

CC: Now you have that company and collective fully formed, what is your creative process like when working on new projects?
MG: Well, generally, I have the idea and I tell them about it while it’s still a big messy blob of a brain fart. Sofi then decides if it’s a good idea or if I’m just having another breakdown.

If it’s the former, we’ll talk about it and then Jonny will help dramaturg the script, helping me develop it and stopping me from going off on too big a tangent or going insane. Sofi will give creative notes on every draft while making sure things are actually in place to get the show made, while also looking after me, to make sure I don’t go too insane! And then we’ll get to making it and hopefully all be very proud.

This is how it’s worked for our past projects and it’s how things are shaping up to be for our next production, called ‘Cardboard City’, which we’ll be unveiling officially come Autumn, once ‘Alt-Right’ is on tour. I feel so privileged to have found myself in this set up, it’s a truly collaborative process and at this point I can’t imagine working in any other way.

‘Bismillah! An ISIS Tragicomedy’ was performed at Underbelly Cowgate and ‘It’ll Be Alt-Right On The Night’ at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2019.