Sabrina Mahfouz’s new play is a ‘gig-lecture’. Meaning, it’s a blend of Ted talk-style rundowns of Middle Eastern history with segments of song, poetry and live music, varying from traditional Arabic instruments and electronics to rave and drum ’n’ bass.
That, in itself, would be a lot to combine, but ‘A History of Water in the Middle East’ does even more. Along with giving a ‘highly edited, highly condensed’ account of British imperialism, it ducks and dives into the theme of water, from the Suez Canal to the scarcity of drinkable H2O. Then it adds in fictionalised stories of individual women living in the past, present and future Middle East. Oh, and then there are also the parts about Mahfouz’s brief consideration of joining the British intelligence services after she was headhunted while doing fast-track entrance to the civil service, only to later be turned down.
So it’s a lot to fit in: less a simple glass of tap water, more an elaborate cocktail made of four shots, two mixers, a couple of bits of fruit, a mini-umbrella and a sparkler. As a fundamental concept, there’s so much to like about it, not least the essential premise of writing history based around one substance and its links to colonialism, suppression and exploitation.
But the finished piece is bitty, flimsy and, in places, hard to follow. Mahfouz performs alongside singer Laura Hanna. Sometimes the whole setup – neon lighting, lots of beat-heavy music – is just really good fun. At other points it succumbs to the inevitable cringe factor of watching a sober adult ‘rave’ in a theatre.
In a sense though, Mahfouz’s play isn’t really about water or the Middle East or spies, at least not in a way that best belongs in a ‘lecture’. It’s about identity, belonging and nationality. This is what it does capture, the anger and sadness arising from centuries of imposed rule and oppression. Maybe the water it’s really interested in is tears.