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A History of Water in the Middle East at The Royal Court Theatre

Kareem Samara, Sabrina Mahfouz - Photo credit Craig Sugden.
Kareem Samara, Sabrina Mahfouz – Photo credit Craig Sugden.

This is an immersive experience in 3D. By 3D I mean Drums, Dancing and Drugs (Okay, Dry Ice). By immersive I mean the way in which the show creates a sense of total encompassment by the blacked out Cuboid that is the performance space. Put together, the show creates a sense of being in a secret chamber in Nefertiti’s tomb whilst scenes from The Egyptian Book of the Dead are being re-enacted all around you hi-definition surround sound. The overall feeling is amazingly hypnotic and trance like. Especially in the finale when Sabrina and Laura sing and stamp in tandem about the endless cycle of war that has plagued the Middle East for millennia, “This is an old, old war.” As a visceral experience A History of the Middle East is astonishingly profound and deeply moving, I loved it.

History and history presenters are fast becoming the hippest game in town. What with the Horrible Histories and presenters Bethany Hughes, Mary Beard and Lucy Worsley history and all things historical are at the centre of our cultural life. You can add Sabrina Mahfouz to that roll call. As both the writer and performer of A History of Water in the Middle East she is sensational. She and her director Stef O’Driscoll have created something unique. A sassy highly entertaining funny and yet deadly serious infotainment about the entire Middle East. In 70 minutes she touches down in 12 different countries and covers thousands of years of history. The story is told through water in all its forms: seas, rivers, lakes, rainfall, wells, desalination plants and Jordanian female plumbers. Through movement (expertly choreographed by Maria Koripas) song (from operatic arias to Karaoke) narration (clever deployment of repetition, punning and alliteration) and re-enactment she has created a dazzling tour de force of contemporary story telling.

Kareem Samara on drums gives the piece a relentless (in a good way!) soundscape that maintains as it were the boundaries of the performance. Sabrina is joined on stage by Laura Hanna. Sabrina and Laura alternate. One or the other sings or takes up the narration. In doing so they give the piece variety and prevent it from losing tempo or becoming monotonous, or mere monologue. Laura’s vocal range is astonishing. She goes from operatic arias via Arabic wailing to bawdy and karaoke.

The re-enactments happen when the Spy from MI5 (David Mumeni) comes on stage to question Sabrina about her application to join MI5. Being Anglo-Egyptian, bi-lingual, young, and a graduate, Sabrina seems a perfect for the role. The Kafkaesque questioning (“Have you had sex with an animal?”) that ensues between Sabrina and the spy make for some of the plays at once hilarious and painful moments. She tells him she goes “Raving”, he doesn’t get it. None more so than when the spy asks if her Dad is a sympathiser with Al Qaeda and Sabrina informs him that her dad lives for Karaoke, whereupon the spy breaks into an MI5 version of Sweet Caroline with “Sweet Suez Canal” 1956 replacing Neil Diamond’s lyrics. The black comedy gives this show its surprise elements. I was expecting the tough descriptions of war, violence and suffering. It’s the Middle East. But the black comedy came as a revelation. It has all the hallmarks of a play by Joe Orton play.

There is plenty of agitprop mode stuff but it’s all done with wit and sincere seriousness. Moreover the maps and charts projected onto the screen (expertly designed by Charli Davis) are incredibly well done and give just the right amount of visual assistance to aid the narrative threads. The writing is nuanced and knowing, (good use of alliteration, pun and repetition: risk and risqué, Landscape, Lives and Legacies) the performances are outstanding, the moral outrage is appropriate and the wit, humour and sheer zest for life is inspiring. Take a bow Sabrina Mahfouz you are a British – Egyptian – Guyanese superwoman, baptised in bass in the Rivers Jordan, Essequibo, Thames, Tees, Tigris and Euphrates.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

British Egyptian Sabrina Mahfouz always loved the mix of places and rivers she grew up around – Thames, Tees, Nile, Essequibo. But when she applied to be a spy, she realised that in Britain an identity not easily defined can be considered a risk, in ways she was not aware of before.

So now she’s on her own intelligence mission – to explore how the water of the Middle East has enabled British power through the ages; and how Britain still effects landscapes, lives and legacies in the Middle East today.

Directed by Stef O’Driscoll, the production journeys across twelve different countries using theatre, poetry and music to share stories of women across the region. From the British Imperialist ownership of natural resources, to the environmental urgency of the present, water has shaped conflicts, policies and fortunes – and it will shape all of our futures.

A History of Water in the Middle East
Written by Sabrina Mahfouz
Directed by Stef O’Driscoll
Designed by Khadija Raza
Lighting designed by Prema Mehta
Composition by Kareem Samara
Sound designed by Dominic Kennedy
Video Designer – Charli Davis
Movement Director – Maria Koripas

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
Thursday 10 October 2019 – Saturday 16 November 2019


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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