A History of Water in the Middle East – Royal Court Theatre, London

Writer: Sabrina Mahfouz

Director: Stef O’Driscoll

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

A heavy message lies underneath a confused, winding 70 minutes of poetry, stories and music. We are told at the start this is a lecture (“highly edited, highly condensed), but in a new style, as a gig. It’s neither. It’s a polemic against the legacy impact of the British Empire in the Middle East using access to water as an interesting vehicle for the points the author wishes to communicate.

Through the show, we are presented with a handful of short stories based in different geographic and historical frames – all making interesting illustrations of the importance of water, and the chaos that is the Empire’s legacy. A female plumber from Jordan in 2050, mythical gods and goddesses, a lady in 1920’s Iraq. Mahfouz also includes a personal side, via interspersed re-enacted sections of an interview she once had to become a British spy. It shows the power of that legacy through one person’s experience, the difficulties involved in discovering, maintaining and even defending an identity as layers and layers of ancestral politicking and oppression is revealed.

Water is a canny touchpoint for this topic. Access to fresh water is a true cause of serious hardship and tension in this region, and access to ports has long been a powerful diplomatic and economic asset. Mahfouz strongly makes her points about the importance of water, making it clear that it is both essential to a population, and an unfair target of indefensible military action now and in the past. However, these points, once clarified, are muddied by politicised and semi-structured attacks on the evils of the Empire.

Protest and public education on issues such as this are absolutely crucial to bringing about change – but this feels like it will appeal only to those already on side, and alienate those who could be persuaded to the cause. The key, useful, message of the essentiality of water security today, is covered with this anti-empire, anti-capitalist tract. We’re left wondering what the call to action is for this protest performance. We can certainly come onside and be against people not having access to water, but is there anyone to support apart from the protesters?

The music from Kareem Samara played live throughout and using some pre-recorded backing is exciting, punchy and full of life. Laura Hanna’s vocals range through styles, some of which are a lot more comfortable than others, but her storytelling through music skill is clear – especially in the Zakiya vignette. Mahhfouz’ writing veers goes from clear to opaque, authoritative to ranting – her performance is engaging though, and is an essential part of the audience connecting with the key points here.

The spy story confuses things further – little of the overall argument is advanced, and while the personal story is interesting and has lessons for the macro theme, it doesn’t hit the mark, especially with a cringing re-written version of “Sweet Caroline” about the Suez Canal.

Confused, confusing and self-deflating. Two strong messages – water security and the bloody history of the British Empire – twisted together so much they’re almost strangled. There’s clearly a passion here for the message, a re-thought presentation could cut through to the audience who needs to hear it.


Runs until 16 November 2019 | Image: Niall McDiarmid

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Confused, confusing and self-deflating

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