You Bury Me – Orange Tree Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Ahlam

Director: Katie Posner

A clear question is raised early on among the kinetic swirling of microphones, voices, bodies and bits of stage furniture. You Bury Me asks what was the genuine impact and legacy of the 2011 rebellion in Egypt, what we remember, and what we missed here being so far removed from it. A quick 140 minutes later we have an idea, though, like the country itself, it’s layered in further questions and context that’s largely unknowable to outsiders.

It’s all uncovered through the intertwined stories of six young people living in Cairo – some related to each other, some friends, some lovers. We don’t get to know any of them very well: they come out as archetypes of Cairo inhabitants through which we get to learn about the state of the city and country in 2015.

There’s Osman, an angry blogger who is still dedicated to the revolutionary cause and Rafik, his gay friend who stays with him after his dad kicks him out of the house. We have a couple, Tamer and Alia, who meet in secret because her Muslim family and his Coptic Christian one mean they cannot be seen in public together. And we have school friends Lina and Maya who have to come to maturity within a strict and conservative value system that gets in the way of the already difficult task teenagers face of trying to define their own identity.

Writer Ahlam lays it on a bit thick at times, especially in the interactions with Osman and Rafik. The risks they’re all taking and the tensions surrounding them are clear, but lacking in nuance. It conveys a huge amount, however, that we in a western audience may never have known about, or at least may have forgotten in the years since the events in Tahrir Square made global headlines.

Very clearly, we see how the country still struggles with religious conservatism, with the pulls between heritage and identity and westernisation, and with the horrifying concept of our friends and family members being disappeared or targeted by various forms of state-sponsored violence. Most of all, we see the everyday difficulties this younger generation faces when it comes to the simple act of growing up. Early sexual experiences, drinking, and make-up are all encumbered with the added threat of genuine harm alongside the universally experienced thrills of exploration and risk-taking,

Cleverly, it also builds in a humanising and empathetic story of how people come to be driven into rafts at the edge of an ocean in search of a better life – something often forgotten in bellicose posturing that makes up most of what we otherwise hear on this topic.

It begins with an air of near insouciance and confidence, before evolving into something more mature and considered. Katie Posner has worked alongside Ahlam, who won the Women’s Prize for Playwriting in 2020 for this work, to create what we see here. It’s still not faultless, containing erratic emotional peaks and troughs, unstable comedic elements (like an overlong sexual discovery session) and odd pacing. Overcoming all that, however, it manages to deliver its impact.

The soundscape created by composer Kareem Samara and sound designer Adam P McCready bolsters the emotional heft of the production. Visually, Sara Perks’ elemental design involves some graffitied concrete blocks and metal frames constantly shifting around and reforming into multiple uses – echoing the impression we are being given about Cairo and the lives of these young people perfectly.

Crucially, this is all founded on material that we were exposed to in blanket coverage around the 2011 revolution, so it should be more familiar. Instead, there are a lot of ideas and revelations that feel fresh and unexplored at least in more mainstream culture in this country. It’s a jarring update, telling the story of a country’s continued struggle. It may not be executed perfectly but in bringing the story of Cairo and Egypt to new light it inhabits with confidence and capability one of the main, and vitally important, roles of art and theatre.

Runs until 22 April 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Confident and capable

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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