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You Bury Me

by on 31 March 2023

Spring Tide

You Bury Me

by Ahlam

Paines Plough at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until 22nd April

Review by John Davies

“Cairo will push you to your absolute limits and then suddenly…you’re in love”.  But how do you explore your identity and relationships under oppression?  How do you focus on a partner, while looking over your shoulder for who might be coming to get you?  How do you love freely, if you can’t live freely?  This play explores these issues in a high-energy, high-emotion production that pushes its audience to try and connect with the lives of a group of young friends in Cairo and to understand the harsh realities, decisions and feelings they face.  

The play is set a few years after the Arab Spring and Cairo is under military control.  We meet six young people living in Cairo – Osman, a journalist who is determined to keep fighting against the oppressive regime; his gay friend Rafik and sister Maya; Maya’s gay friend Lina; and Lina’s brother Tamer, a Christian who is in a relationship with Alia, a Muslim.  Teenage relationships and sexual encounters are played out with an eye to who might be watching.  Not simply because of possible spiteful comments from classmates and disapproval of friends, but the real fear of criminal charges or being ‘disappeared’.  

Each character faces the risk of being an outcast or being imprisoned for acting on their desires and impulses.  The excitement and fear surrounding their behaviour is apparent, with only Maya appearing to laugh at the idea of worrying about the politics, but even she changes her thinking.  We follow this group on their journeys of self-discovery.  They have the normal adolescent worries, arguments and desires, but set against the backdrop of severe oppression and fear of reprisal; and driven by their experience of the revolution and its aftermath.

Winner of a Women’s Prize for Playwriting in 2020, the play is written Ahlam (an alias for an anonymous writer) – who set out to record how the military dictatorship had extinguished the hopes and dreams built in the revolution of 2011.  The writing is punchy, but also often lyrical, and it conveys both the beauty and tragedy of the relationships and dilemmas faced by the protagonists.  This Paines Plough production began its life as a rehearsed reading at the Edinburgh Festival in 2021.  Director Katie Posner and the cast have developed it into a hard-hitting, but ultimately positive view of love in the face of fear.  The minimal staging in the round, with a variety of blocks creating a multitude of scenes, allows the play to flow and the actors to have space to express themselves. 

The cast bring a huge energy to this ensemble piece – jointly narrating the backdrop to the stories and then playing the various characters.  The actors convey a strong sense of the very recognisable anxieties, pressures and pleasures of adolescence, but with a palpable overlay of the fears of the state.  At times, Ahlam’s writing makes us forget this is a militaristic state – this is just relationship stuff – sometimes touching, often funny – but then in an instant we are brought back to the harsh reality of their situation. 

All six actors gave excellent, layered performances – with underlying feelings creeping through their initial front, and a sense of who they really are firming over the course of the action.  But I would particularly mention two – Eleanor Nawal, who superbly conveyed Lina’s discovery and strengthening of her voice and identity; and Tarrick Benham, who brought a broad range of emotional heft to Osman – a man totally focused on fighting for the cause, but coming to understand the importance of his personal relationships.

‘You Bury Me’ is an Arabic expression of love and affection – essentially conveying that you don’t want to live without someone.  In the production’s heated, vibrant, gritty and sometime scary city of Cairo, this expression seems to mean so much more and take on more significance.  It could be taken despairingly, but in the end, the play offers a future of hope.  I would highly recommend seeing it, but don’t just take my word for it – the roar from the audience at the end said it all.

John Davies, March 2023

Photography by Pamela Raith

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