Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights

Hannah Khalil with contributions from Hanan al-Shaykh, Suhayla El-Bushra and Sara Shaarawi
Shakespeare's Globe with Tamasha
Shakespeare's Globe: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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Hakawatis Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Houda Echouafni as Wadiha, Roann McCloskey as Naha, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi as Akila, and Laura Hanna as Zuya. Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Houda Echouafni as Wadiha the Dancer Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Laura Hanna as Zuya the Warrior Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Alaa Habib as Fatah the Young. Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Roann Hassani McCloskey as Naha the Wise Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Nadi Kemp-Sayfi as Akila the Writer. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Hakawati is Arabic for storyteller, and who was the legendary Arab storyteller? Scheherazade, who saved her life with her 1,001 cliffhanger stories told to Sultan Shahriyar who, taking vengeance on all women for one wife’s infidelity, took a new bride every day to wed, bed and behead. But how did she do it?

Hakawatis presents us with five women. Scheherazade had been with them until the day before. They think they are the last of those eligible—the old and the ugly aren’t wanted.

The newest arrival is sixteen-year-old Fatah (Alaa Habib) who hasn’t been told what her fate will be; she’s dressed in bridal finery, excited to be marrying the ruler. The others have their strategies. Zuya, the warrior (Laura Hanna), plans to kill the king with his own sword, dancer Wadiha (Houda Echouafni) to hypnotise him with her movement, Naha, the wise one (Roann Hassani McCloskey), to make love so passionately he will want it to continue and writer Akila (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) seems to be relying on Scheherazade’s plan, which she has shared with them.

Scheherazade’s plan appears to have started well. There has been a day without anyone being taken away, but Akila is concerned: Scheherazade is a good story teller but how good are her powers of invention? Can she keep coming up with enough new stories? They are going to have to help her. They will provide her with stories.

These women begin by improvising together their version of the tale of the Jinni and the Fisherman, then each starts to contribute her individual stories: stories remembered from childhood, stories newly invented, stories out of their own lives, stories told to each other and to the audience, stories written down to be passed to Scheherazade.

I don’t know whether these stories are all new-minted, they were new to me certainly, though some echo traditional tales. Naha stirs things up suggesting that they might be more lively—“you know, x-rated”—and there are a couple of really raunchy tales told from a woman’s viewpoint. Some stories get acted out, some recounted; one simply read out is deemed a bit too literary, though actress Scheherazade’s improvisation could enliven it.

Good storytelling needs close rapport between teller and listener and, though the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has an intimate atmosphere, that rapport isn’t helped by the staging.

Akila describes the storyteller as the sun, the listeners like planets around it. It needs that focus and, though it may be there on stage, it is not until after the interval that it reaches out to the audience, directly addressing them. For rapport, you need to see actors’ faces and there lies a problem. Each teller is given a lit candle to start their story, when they come to the end they extinguishing it, but a single candle or even two with a reflector rarely seems to give adequate illumination, especially against a setting which covers the rear scena with well-lit pale stone scenery. Previous productions I have seen here haven’t posed such a problem.

After the interval, the action onstage becomes more dramatic and Pooja Ghai’s production takes off with the framing story coming to life, the offstage musicians making a bold contribution and the excellent cast making strong audience contact.

Along with lively storytelling, there is plenty of humour, despite the women’s dire situation, and some thoughts about the nature of stories and who owns them.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton