You Bury Me
Paines Plough, The Women’s Prize for Playwriting, 45 North, The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and Orange Tree Theatre in association with Bristol Old Vic
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
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What is a city? The beating heart of youth that thrumms through the streets like lifeblood? Or the conflict, the struggle and the pain that surrounds and overwhelms it? These are but some of the questions that Women's Prize for Playwriting award winner Ahlam explores in this emotionally charged and instantly recognisable story of what it means to live, love and die in Cairo.
You Bury Me is set in 2015, far enough from the 2011 Arab Spring revolution and the 2013 coup and subsequent regime change to feel slightly settled, but still in a period of flux. The play wisely sidesteps the need to lean into any depth of the sociopolitical complexities of post-Arab Spring Egypt, which are gordian to say the least, rather relying on the micro rather than the macro to express the sentiment and constrictions shown between the mostly young characters and their struggles with their place in life, their desires and their unclear futures.
Instead of a conventional narrative, Ahlam's tale is wound through the fractal snippets of story about three pairs of youths, the religiously opposed but deeply in love couple, Alia (Hannah Khogali) and Tamer (Moe Bar-El), whose difficult and spiky relationship is matched only by their yearning for each other, a passionate young political blogger, Osman (Tarrick Benham), and his old friend and house-guest Rafik (Nezar Alderazi) and a pair of chalk-and-cheese classmates, Lina (Eleanor Nawal) and Maya (Yasemin Özdemir).
The differing perspectives of each pairing and their various connections to each other are slowly played out over the course of the play, while the troupe form a Greek chorus between scenes as the often overlapping and cacophonic voice of the city itself; ever-watching, timeless, cold and and chaotic. It's a piece that swings wildly in tone, but understandably so, as we flit from the silly fun of Lina and Maya, acting out, bickering playfully and trying to discover themselves, to the more serious shades of Ozman's ever more frantic and obsessive writing and activism, clashing with the more practical and exhausted pragmatism of Rafik.
There's a darker undercurrent to much of the play, as the very real and present fears of politically inconvenient or undesirable people being disappeared by the authorities. Be it with Tamer's constant fear of repercussions from Alia's strict Muslim family, because of his Coptic faith, or Rafik's unwillingness to stop using Grindr, there is a constant Damoclean threat hanging over the characters.
Yet still, beneath the sadness and the struggles, the play is at times laugh-out-loud funny, poignantly observed and above all effortlessly humanistic, painting the flawed beauty of disparate lives with a remarkable ease. The cast are uniformly excellent, and the simplicity of the staging and design belies an easily recognisable silhouette of a cityscape drawn of stark lines and lights.
If there is a downside to the piece, it's that the play is understandably at its weakest when portraying the male characters. There is a thinness to Osman and Rafik, who seem to exist only as portrayals of a personified writer's burden, and a token gay character. Which isn't to say that their stories aren't interesting and indeed the latter is easily the emotional core of the piece, but rather that the play seems far more invested in the friendship of Maya and Lina and in the mostly comedic relationship of Tamer and Alia, aspects of life which one could easily assume are drawn from closer personal experience. There was also an unfortunate technical problem the night I attended where the actor's microphones were peaking, causing a tinny whine when they raised their voices for the first half of the play.
The brilliance in You Bury Me is that it tells its wider stories by focusing on the relatable lives of a handful of instantly familiar personalities. We can all see ourselves, or those we know and love, in the struggles of these people, and even if the play does occasionally stray into feeling somewhat aimless, its message is still strong and vibrant, like the beating heart of a busy metropolis.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan