Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
You Bury Me is a play about six young Egyptians coming of age in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – “a generation emerging from a national trauma, determined to live and love freely”. It’s a fascinating premise. I’m aware of the Arab Spring, of course; I read the news. But I don’t know anything about life in modern Egypt, nor of the ‘what happens next’. I’m keen to learn more.
Written by an anonymous playwright – under the alias ‘Ahlam’ – and directed by Katie Posner, the play is a co-production with the ever-dependable Paines Plough (among others), and the winner of 2020’s Women’s Prize for Playwriting. Its strength lies in the verve and vitality of the characters, all brimful of youthful energy, fighting to find their places in a changing world.
Alia (Hanna Khogali) and Tamer (Moe Bar-El) have both just graduated from university, but they’ve little experience of sex and relationships. They’re in love and want to get married, but it’s not as easy as all that. Alia is Muslim and Tamer is Christian; Alia’s family, who all work for the police, will not be pleased – and Cairo is a city where displeasing the police can have serious consequences…
Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Maya (Yasemin Özdemir) is making the most of her last year of high school, attending every party she can, and making out with lots of guys. She’s bubbly and outgoing, and doesn’t care a jot about her ‘reputation’. New girl Lina (Eleanor Nawal) is shy and insecure, but opposites attract sometimes, and the two soon become firm friends – but is this enough for Lina?
Osman (Tarrick Benham) is Maya’s half brother, and he’s a political writer, publishing a blog that makes him a target for the authorities. We never see his girlfriend, Zeina, but we learn that she’s an activist too, so it’s no surprise to learn that Rafik (Nezar Alderazi) – who’s staying with Osman because his dad has kicked him out for being gay – thinks there are people watching the house. The two men fear for each other: Osman urges Rafik to delete Grindr, while Rafik wants Osman to stop writing his blog. But neither is prepared to sacrifice their sense of self in order to feel ‘safe’.
All six actors deliver lively and spirited performances, and I like the choral narration that provides context. Özdemir in particular really owns the stage; she is very charismatic, and Maya and Lina’s burgeoning friendship is always believable. Khogali and Bar-El make the most of the humour in Alia and Tamer’s fumbling sexual encounters, as well as inviting empathy for the lovers’ plight.
Although Benham and Alderazi both inhabit their roles well, their strand of the play is less satisfying, mainly because it is all told rather than shown. We don’t see any of Rafik’s dates, nor his family disowning him. Neither do we find out anything about what Osman is actually writing: the political discourse here is frustratingly vague. What is he saying that is so inflammatory, and how much danger is he really in? Without these details, Osman’s rage at his blog being deleted lacks context, and Rafik’s big emotional scene doesn’t elicit as much sympathy as it ought.
You Bury Me is eminently watchable – in the same way as an episode of Friends or Skins – and there are plenty of laughs, as well as moments of sadness. Ultimately, however, I don’t think it quite delivers on its political promise.