The Murder of Kuchuk Hanem, VAULT Festival

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by Isabel Becker

For newly formed theatre company Afkar, their debut play is a strong and creative response to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism in modern-day Britain, but not something extraordinarily fresh or unique. Drawing from duplicate Orientalist accounts by Western men of Kuchuk Hanem – a famous dancer in Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century and subsequent symbol of the male Orientalist gaze – the play draws interesting parallels between Victorian depictions of Middle Eastern women and the lived experience of these women today.

Combining several basic dramaturgical methods over the course of the production, such as a beautifully-performed opening dance sequence, video projections and voice-overs on the concept of Orientalism, the play successfully interrogates contemporary Orientalism whilst cracking some quality jokes. It points out various examples of women being subjected to prejudicial stereotypes, such as being desired by white men for being ‘exotic’ and ‘different’, and being expected to represent an aggregate Arab population. The ‘meet the white parents of my boyfriend’ sketch comically draws attention to the experience of racialised discrimination, particularly inflamed by an older generation.

But whilst the theatre company aims to stage “social/political issues of under/misrepresented groups”, and rightly so, there is a noticeable lack of nuance in the piece. Such political statements are clearly made, but more could be done to exploit the possibilities of theatre as a medium of critique. Greater room for interpretation, shadows between the dialogue from which to draw meaning, would elevate the piece to a more sophisticated level. But for those new to the Orientalism phenomena, this piece is surely an entertaining education in its contemporary manifestations and likely to impress upon many of its audience members.

The Murder of Kuchuk Hanem runs through 2 February.

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