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

If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from A History of Water in the Middle East, it’s that all lectures should be led by Sabrina Mahfouz and Laura Hanna. With their mesmerizing blend of movement, music, poetry and wit, it’s a unique learning experience that should probably be undertaken by all. Saying this, there’s not just one thing I’ve taken away– there are countless. Too many to list.

The piece is a (highly edited, highly condensed, it’s stressed to the audience) whistle-stop historical tour of Britain’s violent imperialistic power exerted across the Middle East, spanning from the 1800s to today. It’s just a mere handful of things extracted from the long list of stuff that definitely isn’t covered in this nation’s national curriculum. 

Upon entering the space, composer/musician Kareem Samara is already on stage. He plays beautiful live music in Middle Eastern style, lit by waterfall-like lighting (designed by Prema Mehta) which lends him an almost magical glow. Samara is a constant presence throughout the piece, providing a kind of musical scaffolding for the worlds we’re taken to. 

Sabrina and Laura are a strong on-stage team. It’s clear that they function on trust and understanding, and a personal investment on the subject matter. They pass the creative baton back and forth throughout, flitting from speech to song, poetry to rap. The ever-changing forms make for an impassioned and scathing assault on British colonialism. Direction by Stef O’Driscoll brings this to vibrant life.

Specifically, this is about the way in which water has been used by the British in countries including Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, and Dubai. The production moves quickly, itself like a fast-flowing river, and sometimes I find myself yanked along in its rapids without having picked up all the information I need on the way. It is, of course, an extremely intricate topic, and the lecture parts could sometimes be afforded a little more space and time to digest. The audience is aided, however, by the video design of Charli Davis, which presents us with visually appealing maps and diagrams. 

This discussion in the macro is usefully and continually linked back to more micro questions; conversations between Sabrina and a Spy (wonderfully embodied by David Yemeni) regarding her potential job prospects serve as harsh illuminations of the difficulties of personal and political identity.  

Moving into the modern day, it’s difficult to hear what is still happening. We are informed that in 2018, 40 Yemeni boys were killed on their way home from school by a bomb made by British arms manufacturer. We are told that 98% of Yemeni women have been sexually assaulted during the four-year conflict happening there at the hands of the British. The lines between past imperialism and a violent present are undeniably drawn.

A History of Water is a raw, truthful, and exposed piece of theatre that tries to do a lot in just over an hour – but leaves me with goosebumps from start to finish. 

A History of Water in the Middle East is playing the Royal Court until 16 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Court Theatre website.