David Mitchell reviews A History of Water in the Middle East at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court
Incredible things are happening in experimental poetry across the world at the moment. Sabrina Mahfouz is a playwright and poet who has brought that spirit of reinvention to the historical lecture by combining a poignant and shameful theme with a unique and highly engaging merging of performance poetry and experimental theatre. It is a talk, a gig, karaoke, rave, poetry recital, surreal comedy, educational and realist; and, more importantly, it flits effortlessly between these genres thanks to Stef O’Driscoll’s direction of Mahfouz’s script.
The imaginative play explores uncomfortable post-colonial truths in an accessible, earthy language that utilises surrealism, biography, irony, humour and pathos. The lecture explores British colonialism and political oppression and considers how occupation leads to the ownership, diversion and weaponising of water. The performance begins the moment you enter a dark, intimate, atmospheric theatre, and a glorious soundtrack begins to soar. The live musical score is performed by composer and multi-instrumentalist Kareem Samara who joins the small cast on the stage. Kareem brings a broadly influenced form of his ‘Arab Futurism’ to the production, mixing sequences, samples, live percussion and instruments over contemporary sounds and beats.
If all University lectures were like this, then the fees would be almost justified. The astonishingly charismatic Sabrina Mahfouz is an incredibly natural presence on stage. Whether she is portraying confidence, humour or vulnerability, she remains compelling. She shares the stage with the equally watchable Laura Hannah, a versatile vocalist and actor who takes on many personas during the performance. The most memorable of these is her comedic turn as ‘the greatest Jordanian female plumber’. The proximity of the audience means they experience the craft of both performers as they switch time, place, narrative and characters. You might wonder why this is poetry, but I thought this was ‘Wasteland’ without the self-consciousness. It is a poet delivering an all-dimensional, broadly influenced piece of spoken word in response to past, present and preventable future travesties of our time.
There is an unpretentious core to this work, an educated working-class voice urging us all to ask questions. Some scenes depict a vetting Sabrina underwent when she was encouraged to apply for the British Secret Service. The questioning turns to her Muslim faith. As the interview progresses, her witty persona is worn away by an onslaught of increasingly intrusive questioning, which pertains to her dual heritage, free spirit, family and personal history. These scenes, although humorous at first, are poignant and powerful; David Momeni is uncomfortably convincing as her interviewer.
The experience ends in an exploration of an often overlooked present day. The saddest truth in the play is that the history of manipulation of nations continues. A History of Water in the Middle East is an experience that stays with the audience long after the music stops. Like any good lecturer and poet, Mahfouz invites us to think for ourselves and question others. I only hope that the play returns soon, and next time a seminar follows this incredible piece of work.
David Mitchell reviews as David Mitchell and writes poetry as David Rudd-Mitchell. His poetry has appeared in two chapbooks published by The Blacklight Engine Room Press.