One Thousand and One Nights
Dramatised by Tim Supple, stories adapted by Hanan al-Shaykh
Royal Lyceum Theatre
All life is here—and it ought to be in a production that comes up not far short of 6¼ hours. Thankfully, the nature of this work justifies a full day in the theatre.
Tim Supple has long experience in translating exotic stories from literature to the stage, everything from Tales from Ovid to Midnight's Children. Even so, he must have felt somewhat daunted at taking on One Thousand and One Nights.
Supple has worked on this project with a multi-national team and one consequence is that it is tri-lingual—English, French and Arabic. This caused problems on the opening day and night as, for some reason, the surtitles frequently struggled to keep up with the action.
For the most part this was soon forgotten, so intoxicating is the staging of a series of varied stories of rich and poor, humans and jinnis chosen for dramatisation.
The starting point is well known as, in order to save her own life and those of her fellow virgins, Houda Echouafni's Shahrazad selflessly agrees to marry the tyrannical Shahrayar (Assaad Bouab).
Her task is not only to sleep with the ruler but also to talk into submission the man who prides himself on executing his wives the day after marriage.
Shahrazad's techniques belie many people's expectations of these tales as the sources of shows for children. This selection is characterised by lashings of sex and gore, in addition to comedy and more sensitive stories about lovers.
The play consists of 16 stories, many of which bleed into each other quite naturally. While it is inevitable that some will be better conveyed than others, the general quality of this massive undertaking is unquestionable.
In true Supple style, the aesthetic is simple, the actors appearing on a mosaic floor with minimal sets and props, though the costumes are colourful and there is live eastern music to spice things up.
The actors are given freedom to convey messages with physicality, boundless energy and humour, working perfectly together as a large ensemble of 12 men, 7 women plus the 5 musicians. Pleasingly, the creators ensure that every performer gets numerous opportunities to prove his or her mettle.
Everyone will have their favourite tales. Right at the start, the set-up story is sexually charged but also reeks of impending mortality, while the Porter's experiences with three women is a pleasure for him and for us. Both The Tailor and the Hunchback and Dalilah the Wily about a star confidence trickster are as funny as it gets.
Thanks to tremendous imagination, good pacing, fine acting from all and the simple Oum Keltoum Belkassi design, gorgeously lit by Sabri El Atrous, the time flies by both sides of a 90-minute interval.
As with the very best of these stage marathons, you come out at the end a little disappointed that it cannot go on even longer. Maybe there will be a second dose some time. If there is, this critic will certainly be lining up for tickets.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher