Review: A History of Water in the Middle East (Royal Court)

Sabrina Mahfouz writes and performs an exploration of who holds the power in and over the Middle East

Kareem Samara and Sabrina Mahfouz
Kareem Samara and Sabrina Mahfouz
© Craig Sugden

Education, entertainment and sheer incandescent fury co-exist side by side in this remarkable, genre-confounding new show by Egyptian-English theatremaker Sabrina Mahfouz.

Describing itself as a 'gig-lecture', it channels a range of specifically female voices through poetry, video, comedy and an eclectic mix of musical styles to explode some of the perceived myths around British involvement in the Middle East throughout history. It could so easily have been dry (no pun intended) and inaccessible, but in Stef O'Driscoll's inventive, frequently rousing staging it proves pretty fascinating.

It cleverly lulls you into a false sense of security: upon entering the Court's Upstairs auditorium you could be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into a super-trendy Middle Eastern night club, with trippy lighting and Kareem Samara pounding merrily away on various instruments. Then Mahfouz and her co-star Laura Hanna bound on, all convivial edge and snarky charm ("we don't look how anyone wants an Egyptian to look"): street-smart, likeable London women with a strong handle on their own ethnic and cultural identities. They banter and gambol, and are engaging, dynamic company.

Some of what follows is indeed very funny (Hanna does a particularly amusing quasi-operatic turn as Miriam, a Jordanian female plumber in the future year 2050). At its core though this is a deadly serious show about the same small area of planet Earth being repeatedly annexed and exploited by foreign powers, about the weaponisation of an essential natural element, and about the underlying racism that is still very much a part of the fabric of this country.

Mahfouz is far too smart and even-handed to let her text simply degenerate into Brit-bashing; some of the international statistics she unleashes should chill you to the marrow (98% of Yemeni women suffered sexual assault during the recent conflict there, Egypt has more imprisoned writers than any other country, there's much more…). There is a stark moment where she and Hanna acknowledge that, despite being dual nationalists, they may not now be welcome in Egypt after mounting this show and sharing their information.

The transitions from fanciful to harrowing are skilfully handled and nowhere is this typified better than in a viciously funny karaoke scene where the 'spy' investigating Mahfouz (truth being stranger than fiction, she briefly considered working in espionage) launches into a pop classic, sarcastically rewritten to tell the story of the Suez Canal. The effect is humorous but alarming, and David Mumeni delivers it brilliantly.

The production is technically impressive, especially Khadija Raza and Prema Mehta's shimmering, beautiful bolts of overhead neon light that serve as visual representations of the rivers running though the region. Movement director Maria Koripas gets the women to constantly undulate and sway suggesting the flow of water, in a way that feels both organic and highly theatrical. This also proves powerful when it stops, such as where Mahfouz goes head-to-head and stock still against the spy figure questioning her entire existence.

If the 'rave' elements feel a little grafted on, multidisciplinary musician Samara is a constant pleasure to watch, and Hanna has a magnificent voice and commanding stage presence. Ultimately though, it's Mahfouz's show, and she is endlessly compelling and relatable. This journey may only take 70 minutes but it's an intense, mind-expanding way to spend the time.