Arabian Night

Roland Schimmelpfennig

Soho Theatre

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

Those who saw the recent Royal Court production of Push Up by Roland Schimmelpfennig will know that he is a German playwright who is willing to eschew meaning for effect.

Arabian Night is an Absurdist fantasy that has many of the qualities of a string quintet. The five characters tell various tales, often with common themes, and occasionally their stories meet. Even then, the vision of one will be very different from that seen by the other. Dreams and nightmares converge and diverge throughout.

Ostensibly, this is the story of two female flatmates in a high-rise block somewhere in Germany. Underlying this are enough tales for a dozen Arabian Nights if not quite 1,001. Franziska (Anna Hope) and Fatima (Stephanie Street) have lived together for four years but hardly know each other. This is because Franziska falls asleep as Fatima arrives home and dreams of another life in the harem.

This seems almost reasonable in Roland Schimmelpfennig's world. Amidst much charging around, Fatima, not to mention the caretaker, Sam Cox, a sad man who has lost his wife and likes to busybody, find out some hard truths. Eventually, the latter travels through the desert and his reward is to live happily ever after.

Throw in Fatima's boyfriend, Akbar Kurtha, who has visited her on his very singular moped every night for the last two years but never been seen by sleeping beauty, Franziska. As he approaches male heaven, the plot is nearly complete.

However there is an extra twist in the character of the voyeur from over the road, perhaps the best performance of all from Mark Benson, who has many of the funniest lines. Drawn to the flat by Franziska's uncovered beauty, he soon finds himself trapped in a brandy bottle. This is an unfortunate fate that seems more like an Angela Carter fairy tale than Sheherezade.

The plot is actually far more intricate than this but you will have an idea by now. Luckily, the play is funny and achieves some kind of meaning, if only in a bizarre way. Underlying this are some pithy comments on contemporary relationships and some allusions to the more traditional Arabian tales.

Arguably the real star is Es Devlin's budget-priced set. This is based on a town seemingly made from cardboard boxes but is a feat of genius worthy of an award. His moped, man in a bottle and shower are all gems.

Gordon Anderson's direction ensures that the madcap pace, reminiscent of Run Lola Run, is kept up to the end. This is all great fun and makes one keen to see what on earth Roland Schimmelpfennig will come up with next.