Alp Haydar - how do you solve a problem like Sharia?
Alp Haydar tells us the story behind his unique video-interactive cabaret shows, which blend sauce, satire, fantasy, religion and 'fudgepackery'.
Alp Haydar's cabaret shows are among the few that require spoiler alerts. Over the past 15 months, Haydar has developed a unique form of video-interactive live show-cum-adventure serial, in which 'Carry On' sauce, crowd-pleasing singalongs and cliffhanger storytelling are set against fantasy backdrops - from dystopian futures to hijacked aircraft, Atlantis to Wood Green - and sit alongside probing examinations of personal neurosis, social and religious pressure, and jokes about 'fudgepacking'. Oh, and he plays all the parts: a version of himself; his jihadist on-off boyfriend, Mohammed; and his homophobic ogre of a mother, Sharia Law.
Haydar has built enough of a following to land the publicly-voted Time Out Audience Award in February's inaugural London Cabaret Awards. And the uninitiated can catch up when he plays four Thursdays at the RVT. On July 12, he reprises his last show, 'Alp Haydar's New Vagina', a technically ambitious, emotionally fraught outing in which noir suspense and grotesque body horror build to a wrenching climax (with arse jokes). On July 19 and 26, he premieres his latest opus, 'Alp Haydar's Sharia Law', a decade-spanning tale that takes in rural Cyprus, the gay quarter of hell, BNP HQ and an imagined Islamist British state to explore the origins of Alp's maternal nemesis. Then on August 2, 'Alp Haydar's Erotic Adventures in Atlantis' - the show that preceded 'New Vagina' - is revived for the Hot August Fringe, as part of the latest edition of BURN, a platform for moving images by cabaret artists (programmed by me).
As usual, Haydar has posted videos on YouTube and Facebook to promote 'Sharia Law'. Somewhere between trailers and rehearsals, they provide fan-fodder and show his deftness at switching registers, from ramshackle nudge-and-wink chumminess to technical and dramatic proficiency. One video, obviously filmed in his bedroom in one take (and subsequently removed by YouTube), shows Haydar as BNP activist Sandra, wig and Widdecombe-ish bosom swinging as she sings 'I Want My British Britain' ('Don't tell me to explore foreign lands./I'll stay right here 'cause they eat with their hands'). The other, an elaborate take-off of the trailer for 'The Iron Lady', was also constructed entirely in Haydar's bedroom but deploys composited backdrops of a Westminster office and a sophisticated green screen effect of Sharia manipulating a miniature marionette of Alp against swirling lighting effects. (It also shows off Sharia's weirdly irresistible manic affect: 'the headscarf is absolutely non-negotiable,' she says, eyes darting furtively.)
Promo videos are where it all began for Haydar, using 'skills I learned as a child making home movies or editing wedding videos' to create trailers publicising more-or-less conventional songbook shows. When he found himself with a booking at the RVT but without an accompanist, video effects offered a way of jazzing up his backing tracks. 'I thought, if you're adding a bunch of shitty snowflakes, why not add your mother…?'
Soon, video was integral to his shows, letting Haydar interact with himself in various guises on screen as well as with the audience in the room; his charm in the moment is crucial given the likelihood of delays or technical fuck-ups. As his skills have improved, the shows have grown more technically and dramatically complex, requiring up to three months of work and exploring often contentious aspects of the performer's Turkish Cypriot heritage - all interspersed with gags about oil wrestling, dolphin rape and complimentary peanuts.
'My conflicts are with Turkish culture,' says Haydar, who was born in Palmers Green and lived between London and Cyprus to the age of five. 'My biggest issue is with gender expectations. When I was a child, everything seemed hilarious and I felt like the only one in on the joke: the net-curtain-twitching old women, the hairy-chest-thumping men. It was only when I returned to Cyprus in my teens and realised - and my mother realised - that my cousins had become chest-thumping men, and I hadn't, that it became a problem.'
The video nights offer a mode for engaging with such problems. 'My identity as a gay Turk is hidden [in Cyprus],' he says, 'but not in the shows. It's very cathartic. I had a younger gay cousin living in the village. When I saw him, he cried and said how wonderful it was to speak to someone who understood, and how he thought my videos on Facebook were funny. He hung himself on a building site. I hope my shows can make people think - walk away with a bit more compassion.'
Haydar shows compassion for his characters: for all Sharia Law's bigoted monstrosity, it's impossible not to empathise with her anguished fury when she roars her signature song, 'My Son is Gay'. In the new show, we learn more about her origins. 'Let's see the innocent girl in paradise,' Haydar says, 'or at least the Cypriot tourist board's version of it. How did she become this scared, judgmental person? I've spoken to my mum about her experiences in Cyprus, and coming to this country in the '70s.'
Haydar's shows include plenty of irreverent Muslim and Islamist-themed material, from a jihadist striptease to the Roy Orbison-style ditty 'Muslim Woman' ('Muslim woman, walking down the street,/Muslim woman, you only see her feet…').
'Having grown up around that, I see religion as brainwashing and like a fairytale, 'he says. 'And I see Islam used as a way for people to justify their instincts. To be subjected to that at an early age, when you're trying to figure out who you are [can be damaging]. It's always been what my mother's thrown in my face; for me, it was Mohammed and Allah, as it would be God and Jesus for an Irish Catholic.
'We've seen a huge resurgence of fundamentalism in Turkey and I'm entitled to comment on it - though I'm not well versed enough to comment on the Koran itself. I've met so many young Turkish and Kurdish people through LGBT associations - they're scared and they're hiding. If my humour and songs can provoke a bit of thought or bravery or discussion, I believe I'm doing something good.'
Haydar admits to learning on the job - his audiences love him for his lapses into bad taste but he admits to revising some of his ideas about which aspects of religion are fair game. The crucial aspect for him is the cultural impact of religiously-justified ideas on people's lives. 'When my cousin died, everyone said he must have been depressed and left it at that. But if he was, it wasn't an illness he was born with. Part of my work is for people like me who have been swept under the carpet. I haven't been yet and, until I am, I will try to be heard as loudly as I can.'