A History of Water in the Middle East at the Royal Court Theatre
This reviewer would have gone to a lot more of his lectures if they had been conducted by Sabrina Mahfouz.
The writer and performer’s A History of Water in the Middle East – sorry, that should be “the highly condensed, highly edited history” – is a whistle-stop tour of a region repeatedly drained by Britain’s insistent colonialism. Of borders drawn for profit and access, of arid futures and bloody presents. It’s all the stuff this nation’s curriculum skips, the kind of geopolitical investigation into Britain’s destructive role in shaping the world’s conflicts that is normally ignored in favour of learning mnemonics about Henry VIII’s wives.
A topic that could be dry is given immense style and lyricism through a production, directed by Stef O’Driscoll, that doesn’t stop moving. Mahfouz, her words pouring forth like poetry, is joined by the room-enveloping vocal pipes of performer Laura Hanna and the churning, thumping soundtrack of musician Kareem Samara, the trio bringing to life stories of Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, the UAE, Egypt. Tracking wars and droughts, foundational myths and water-conserving entrepreneurs.
The Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates hang overhead thanks to Khadija Raza and Prema Mehta’s strip lighting, while Charli Davis’s video design is a professorial “visual aid” that goes far beyond the stuffy templates of Microsoft PowerPoint.
Repeatedly interrupting this gig-lecture is David Mumeni’s Spy. Mahfouz is interviewing for the Secret Intelligence Service – another form of British imperialism – a process made all the more intrusive due to her Egyptian heritage. Her every answer is treated as an act of aggression, another reason why she isn’t suitable, despite her background being the very reason she was contacted in the first place.
It is a way for Mahfouz to draw the more macro talk of nations back to personal national identity – the elements you choose and those that are used against you. How these interactions take place, halting the lecture at thematically appropriate moments, can sometimes feel too neat, especially when compared to the flow of the rest of the show.
Part of that is intentional; the Spy is emblematic of the ruling class, diametrically opposed to the aims of the piece. And part of it comes from a theatrical device that doesn’t quite work. That is until one surprising moment of Neil Diamond karaoke, the two halves of the production smashing together in the best example of what A History of Water is trying to do.
Photos: Craig Sugden
A History of Water in the Middle East is at the Royal Court Theatre from 10th October until 16th November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.