Theatre review: Ramy: In the Frontline

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe: “On the frontline, fighting with good people, is the purest place I have experienced,” says singer, songwriter and revolutionary Ramy Essam. “You leave everything behind.”

Summerhall (Venue 26)

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He’s talking about the Egyptian revolution of 2011’s effect on his home country, where he became a counter-cultural celebrity for his songs, boldly performed to huge crowds on Tahrir Square and sung back to him by them. The words of his anthem Irhal in particular, loudly demanded the resignation of the president – “the dictator”, in Essam’s words – Hosni Mubarak.

Whether the hour we spend in Essam’s calm, softly spoken company can truly be called theatre or whether it’s a spoken word storytelling piece is up for debate, yet it’s hard to see how his documentary lecture with songs could be any more compelling if it were a work of dramatic fiction. Even as a teenager, he was a fighter, he tells us, obsessed with the “asshole male culture” of his homeland. He shows us pictures of himself, fists ready to pummel any sleazy guy who hassled his sister in the street.

Essam elaborates on his transformation into the laidback bohemian with long curls resembling dreadlocks who stands before us; a friend, he says, played guitar, and he asked for lessons, threatening dire consequences if his friend ever mentioned it to anyone. From there, he moved on to songs and poetry at his local coffee bar, and when the call came for young Egyptians to take to the streets, he fought once more – this time for a cause he believed in, rather than his own macho gratification.

In the Frontline elaborates not just upon Essam’s own journey, but gives a first-hand account of the events surrounding the Egyptian revolution as well, from a natural storyteller who was placed at the heart of it throughout.

It’s easy to sympathise with the anger of young Egyptians when he shows us brief but horrifying camera-phone videos of the security services beating and degrading young men and women, but harder to imagine dousing oneself in vinegar and soft drinks to ward off the effects of tear gas, and throwing rocks and punches against armed police.

Essam’s own torture, a day of beatings in the square in front of the city’s museum, is related with forensic fortitude, a memorial to “one of the most important days of my life” which illustrates what real resolve is.

Until tomorrow. Today 8:40pm.