Edinburgh Fringe digital review: The Calligrapher

A new, award-winning, student-written play, The Calligrapher played live at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and is now being reviewed from a digital recording of the production as it was shown in Cambridge in 2021.

Written by Abraham Alsawaf, it concerns a Quran which has both beautiful artistry and disturbing provenance – it was created from Suddam Hussein’s blood and is now locked from view in Baghdad Mosque.

The artist, Haytham (Dounia El Barhdadi) now an art restorer based in the US, is haunted by the blood-drenched Quran of his past; as are we with the gallery decorated by the verses writ large and red on each wall.

Vidya Divakaran portrays the voice of Haytham’s creation and conscience in Alsawaf’s wordy and complex play, which takes in the spectre of the Blood Quran alongside the legacy of Iraq’s most controversial ruler.

As the art collector Kim, Anjeli Chapman provides a malicious and mischevious counterpoint to the tragedy of control and warfare exemplified by Haytham”s greatest work.

Also centre stage is the notable painting by Caravaggio of Judith beheading Holofernes, highlighting the battle of the sexes, the weakness of the spirit.

Casting a woman as a male artist is also potentially controversial – his sob Ahmed (played by Kush Melwani) and his white fiancee Millie (Amy Lever) indicates the culture clash inherent in the modern state and its people.

Presented by the Dilja Theatre Company, The Calligrapher has a lot going on within its script but I would have liked slightly more ‘show’ than ‘tell’. However, it is well-constructed as it stands, scene for scene.

I also had to read around Iraq and fundamental Islam, which has a misogynist view of Western women as immoral, drunken whores who show no respect for their menfolk.

The story of the Blood Quran, commissioned by Hussein during his place in power, is contentious – is it made of one man’s donated blood, or made up of the blood of many victims? What does this depiction of the most holy of Muslim texts represent? What does morality mean?

The Calligrapher (directed by Lise Delamarre) played at the Corpus Playroom in Cambridge in February 2022, and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2022 (with some cast changes).

*** (and a half)