FringeReview UK 2023
You Bury Me
Orange Tree Theatre with Paines Plough, The Women’s Prize, 45 North, Lyceum, Bristol Old Vic, Concord Theatricals
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond
Festival: FringeReview UK
An essential play so rich in its one-hour-forty you emerge dazed with possibilities. Director Katie Posner hopes it’ll change you. So do I.
Director Katie Posner, Designer Sara Perks, Lighting Designer Aideen Malone, Sound Designer Adam P McCready, Composer Kareem Samara, Movement Director Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster, Intimacy Co-ordinator Robbie Taylor Hunt, Casting Director Jacob Sparrow.
Assistant Director Riwa Saab, Production Manager Ryan Funnell, Technical Stage Manager Simon Perkins, Company Stage Manager Lois Sime, ASM Charlotte Smith-Barker, LX Programmer Matthew Carnazza Productions Chris McDonnell, Costume Supervisor. Manuela Fleming.
Promotional Photography Rebecca Need-Menear, Rehearsal & Production Photography Helen Murray.
Till April 22nd
Here’s something you must see. Whilst Edinburgh Fringe shows have been winning fresh acclaim in London revivals recently, winner of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting, Ahlam’s You Bury Me – with just a rehearsed reading at EdFringe – receives its premiere at the Orange Tree, in association with Paines Plough.
Again directed by Katie Posner who guided that reading, it’s a very different kind of Six, or in a sense not. Oppression brings in a dark lottery for those who resist. Six young people. Egypt 2015, the exhilarating dawn of the 2011 revolution, the overthrow of General Mubarak has gone backwards: the military are back in charge, social and sexual oppression of all kinds is back, and remains. This is how a generation – Millennials and older Zoomers – comes of age after revolution fades, ‘determined to live and love freely’. We follow the six over months, years, as ideals shift and life shifts them.
To underscore the point, You Bury Me is written under an alias, Ahlam – though the playwright’s bio confides a love of ‘pistachio-crusted salmon’. It’s an index of the warmth and defiance of the writer’s approach too. Six actors blaze and cross social tripwires, transgress, interact, laugh together, cry havoc, voice terror and experience it. The title refers to the proverb: I’d rather be buried than lose you/my love. But it’s also a conflicted love-letter to Cairo and all cursed enough to love her.
Yet the overall experience of this play is uplifting, a resounding yes. You feel love might just seep through Egypt’s khaki one day. But how? Rafik’s 25, an Eng Lit graduate, gay but despairs of activism, telling his political journalist friend Osman, also 25: ”Don’t you see the system is already dead? It’s the fucking undead!” Rafik (Nezar Alderazi) just wants to love, Osman (Tarrick Benham) to fight, spurred on by his even more radical offstage girlfriend Zeina. Rafik’s terrified Osman’s blogs will destroy them. Osman’s clearer that Rafik’s Grindr app puts Rafik in more imminent peril: “Delete it”. Rafik resists.
The actors periodically come together as a chorus. The City ripples in and out with different voices: watchful, sharing its stories, comforting but helplessly prophetic, unwilling to swerve anyone’s fate. The most powerful is at the end, when it turns almost Sphinx-like, questioned by Rafik.
Sara Perks’ set involves a few suspended signs and a grey floor with white-stencilled markings, metal chairs and one wheel-based staircase in a flexible minimalist ballet: the actors’ immediacy throbs and overflows their in-the-round space. Aideen Malone’s lighting enjoys the City’s dark, making a grisaille chorus. Adam P McCready develops what can only be described as a watchful sound.
Other pairings include friends Osman’s half-sister Maya (Yasmin Ozdemir), 18, from a left-liberal cultural Muslim family, seemingly sexually confident with an experience at fifteen, and 17-year-old Lina (Eleanor Nawal), virginal and Coptic Christian yet who understands her sexuality far more quickly than her friend. Yet reflects: ”My father will ship me off to the first rehab centre for gay people he can find.” Tamer (Moe Bar-El) and Alia (Riwa Saab in this performance) are both 25-year-old Engineering graduates, but again he’s a Copt, she from a strict Muslim family.
It’s not just the story of two couples and a pair of friends. Quite apart from the ensemble energy rendering the storylines fluid, four characters know each other quite well and Ahlam neatly introduces them all at the start like an affable freshers’ night. Still, despite some collective bus moments we’re guided through four stories, two linked by that friendship.
The most tortuous is that bromance with serious Osman and Rafik who art one points badgers Osman into joining in Nina Simone’s ‘I Got Life’, but has done something unforgivable in Osman’s eyes. Which has ultimately calamitous consequences. Alderazi’s mercurial mischievous and lost Rafik is both appealing and heart-rending, bleakly comic yet wise as to what’s ahead. Benham’s Osman’s journalist avoids stereotypical earnestness, who shows how Osman rises in stature with self-doubt.
The most joyous and comic pairing energise the stage, running around together, dancing and second-guessing. Ozdemir’s Maya thins she’s far more advanced than Lina’s Nawal. After all she knows self-pleasuring, has experimented and – why is it Lina so gets under her skin? Ozdemir’s wonderfully irritating but so winning, so warm, you see why Lina forgives her. More restrained, Nawal brings a piercing self-knowledge to Lina, a steely passion and declaration that’s both heart-stopping to Maya: “I’m not gay” and conveying the risks of stripping away pretence.
Bar-El’s Tamer and Riwa Saab’s Alia have loved each other two years; yet like other characters held back from sex. Their awkward, fumble-laden encounters trigger a fraught near-disaster prompting a major decision, as Alia reveals something devastating about her family. Bar-El shivers with decency fighting puppyish lust voiced in dodgy desires .
Saab though earns a particular cheer. As assistant director she came on at a few hours’ notice when the actor playing Alia was indisposed. Not a reading-in, but performance, off the book, with individual quirks, dancing, a gallimaufry of gestures. Her Alia’s cautious yet glinting with desire, adventurous in plans yet collapsing with self-doubt.
Yes, there’s a tiny sense that You Bury Me swerves in and out of that ‘Wives of Henry VIII’ mantra, but this work will grow, gaining even more stature as it’s performed. It’s an essential play so rich in its one-hour-forty you realise, re-reading (do grab the text) you’ve almost blinked and missed something, however attentive. It’s a dazzlingly poetic work with potential even beyond this terrific premiere – a tribute to this company. Posner directs at such a pace, and the actors deliver with such energy, that you emerge dazed with possibilities. Posner hopes it’ll change you. So do I.