Middle East life is a cabaret at Fringe festival

Compère Abdel Rahim Alawiji in Here is the News from Over There (Over There is the News from Here) at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Courtesy Topher McGrillis
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It began with the offer of sweet black tea in a styrofoam cup from a Lebanese writer wearing a kilt. It ended with a Tom and Jerry cartoon illustrating a Syrian ballad. In between there was an Egyptian poem about womanhood, a short play by a leading Scottish playwright about conflict, and an elderly woman weaving at a loom, her scuttling hands projected onto a large screen.

Here is the News from Over There (Over There is the News from Here) is a mash-up of poems – some in Arabic, some in English – and short stories, plays, songs, music and commentary, all from or about the Middle East.

Even by the standards of the edgy Edinburgh Fringe, Here is the News ... pushes the limits of what counts as performance. Billed as a cabaret, it's staged late at night in a former lecture theatre of the University of Edinburgh's old veterinary school.

“There is a speed and informality to the cabaret form that allows for a more conversational tone,” says the show’s director Lorne Campbell, who is also the artistic director of the prestigious English theatre company Northern Stage, which backs the project.

“I wanted the audience to experience it comfortably and at ease, not to approach the Middle East with a serious and pious head on, as so often happens. I wanted it to be as if having a coffee with someone, exchanging thoughts and stories.”

Hence, the sweet tea offered by the kilted emcee, who is leading Lebanese satirist and playwright Abdel Rahim Alawiji, as we make our way to our seats.

The serious aim behind this late-night show is to present a ­different Middle East to Edinburgh audiences.

“In Britain, we are presented with only a very narrow and ­agenda-driven set of stories and images of life across a vast and complex region,” says Campbell. “I want to create a space where alternative stories and perspectives can be told by a wide range of writers and creators.”

More than 20 writers from countries across the region – including the UAE, Morocco, Syria, Algeria, Palestine and Iraq – were commissioned to produce original pieces for the production. Some are delivered by the creators themselves, others are read by actors.

Here is the News ... is the creation of renowned Scottish playwright David Greig, who was inspired by 10 years of travel to Damascus, working with London's Royal Court Theatre and the British Council.

He led the protests at last year's Fringe against an Israeli hip-hop opera that had received a small amount of Israeli government funding, forcing it to close. As a result, Greig launched the Welcome to the Fringe fund to support Palestinian and Israeli artists who reject state support to come to Edinburgh. Here is The News ... is partly funded from this source.

Greig imagines his creation as ever-changing.

“Some nights might be raucous, some moving, some intellectual,” he says. “There are new writers every day. We keep some bits of material that go down well and do them again. Other bits will develop as we go along. Others disappear. The idea is that the audience comes back many times and has a building experience.”

Each performance features three main elements. The night I watched it, on its third run, Greig had written a short play for three actors about conflict – which he had scribbled down the previous afternoon between rehearsals for Lanark, his play that opens this month at the Edinburgh International Festival.

His short play was followed by an Egyptian writer reciting her poem about being an Arab woman. Then Alawiji read out a ballad by Syrian writer Abdallah Alkafri in Arabic, before an audience who did not understand the words but could feel the rhythms. A live Twitter feed has yet to be added, but will be done over the next week, sharing the performances on social media.

This Middle Eastern cocktail is loosely emceed by Alawiji – ­although on the night I was there, Campbell kept butting in, so eager was he to describe the purpose of the project. It was as if the director was worried we might not understand the emerging tapestry of what we saw, instead seeing a mess. But his continual elucidation gave the night the feeling of an after-hours university seminar as much as a show.

The weaver was constantly on stage. She is important – a ­metaphor. The show aims to create “an epic new ballad – weaving a new tapestry” about the Middle East. In this cabaret form, the rich complexity of Middle Eastern voices are represented and dialogues begin. The Fringe brings a unique opportunity to do this, says Campbell.

“Theatre, and in particular theatre in a festival context, is a space to try to meet and create a basis for further deeper, better understanding and conversation.”

• Here is the News from Over There (Over There is the News from Here) runs until August 29. Visit www.summerhall.co.uk, www.northernstage.co.uk and www.edfringe.com for more information