You Bury Me

Mar 9 2023 | By More

★★★★   Essential

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Tue 7 – Sat 18 Mar 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

You Bury Me at the Lyceum is an utterly convincing piece of theatre – visually, emotionally and politically forceful, performed with wit, skill and humanity.

By Ahlam (who writes under a pseudonym), the play is presented by Paines Plough, the Women’s Prize for Playwriting, 45 North and the Orange Tree Theatre as well as the Lyceum, in association with the Bristol Old Vic. Any thoughts that this means a design by committee can be instantly dismissed; this is the work of a singular and compelling vision.

Nezar Alderazi, Eleanor Lawal, Yasemin Őzdemir, Moe Bar-El, Hanna Khogali and Tarrick Benham in You Bury Me. Pic: Pamela Raith Photography

The script won the Women’s Prize for Playwriting in 2020, but its first draft was written in 2015, the year when the play is largely set, as the hopes engendered by the 2011 Egyptian revolution faded under a military government determined to crush all opposition.

The focus is on a group of young people in Cairo and their attempts to express themselves both politically and sexually under an authoritarian government; and in a country whose views on the rights of women and gay people are often backward-looking.

Importantly, this is not the dry, po-faced and worthy affair that a simple description might make it sound. While undoubtedly serious in intent and execution, it is also a vibrant, energetic and urgent portrait of a city and its people – and both far funnier and far sadder than you might possibly expect.

love letter

The title comes from a Levantine Arabic saying expressing love – ‘may you bury me’ being a declaration that the speaker does not want to live on without their loved one.

This is certainly a love letter, with all the exhilaration, joy, wonder and frustration that entails. However bleak some of it may be, the hopes and dreams born of that love are always there. Not only does the play function as a tribute to those who have gone, it also pays respect to those who remain.

A scene from You Bury Me. Pic: Pamela Raith Photography

Ahlam’s dialogue is sparky and full of spiky plausibility, the structure showing an enviable command of the physical possibilities of theatre.

The production obviously benefits from a run in Bristol before arriving in Edinburgh. This is a coherent ensemble giving a taut and compact performance.

There is a gloriously kinetic feeling to the piece, too, thanks to Katie Posner’s sympathetic, soulful direction – aided greatly by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster’s movement direction, with the changes between scenes beautifully achieved.

This helps to give momentum to a production that might ordinarily seem too long at 100 minutes without an interval; the occasions when such fluid transitions do not occur, accordingly give due weight to the more solemn moments around them.

emotional realism

The atmosphere is enhanced by Sara Perks’s design. Featuring illuminated cubes and hanging breeze-blocks it is both wonderfully functional and effective, while Aideen Malone’s lighting is lyrical at times, stark at others. The attention never wavers, as their command of the visuals matches the emotional realism of the performances.

As well as the jumps between the various stories being smoothly negotiated, several other potential pitfalls are skilfully avoided. The seemingly inevitable connections between the various stories are handled deftly; the use of the cast as a kind of Greek chorus representing the city could easily grate, but never does; the eager, emphatic nature of the performances could tip over into parody but is pitched just right by Posner and the cast.

A scene from You Bury Me. Pic: Pamela Raith Photography

A looming danger – that the characters and their storylines could come across as formulaic, almost soap opera-ish – is prevented by the verve and commitment of the cast. Tarrick Benham’s political activist Osman is an anguished figure whose unswerving devotion to revolution is not mirrored by a faith in himself.

Nezar Alderazi is both extremely funny and deeply emotional as Rafik, whose belief in the revolution has faded, but whose embrace of his true sexuality leaves him just as open to government reprisals.

Moe Bar-El and Hanna Khogali give star-crossed lovers Tamer and Alia a touching believability, while Yasemin Őzdemir and Eleanor Lawal are similarly credible as teenagers Maya and Lina. The latter two are particularly strong at expressing the comedy that runs throughout the production, helping make it so enjoyable.

brio and drive

There are other things about the production that make it accessible. The brio and drive about the ensemble conjures up a whole world; characters and events only mentioned rather than witnessed seem as real as what we do see.

As so often happens, being strongly rooted in a particular place makes it oddly universal. The concerns and dreams of the characters are understandable to all, while the things that might make it seem alien are not really so different.

The obsession with women remaining virgins before marriage might seem odd to us, but the misogyny and double standards that accompany it will not. There are plenty of politicians in the so-called West whose views on sexuality are similar, and who are peculiarly eager to paint anyone seeking the freedom to express their sexuality as being the intolerant ones.

The appearance on stage of a small boat designed to take two people away from persecution cannot help but be poignant in the current climate.

But this is far from being a brittle political exercise. First and foremost, it is a riveting theatrical spectacle.

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Tuesday 7 – Saturday 18 March 2023
Tues – Sat: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed, Sat: 2.30 pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Then on tour to:
Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA
Monday 27 March – Saturday 22 April
Evenings 7.30pm, matinees: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

A scene from You Bury Me. Pic: Pamela Raith Photography


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.