One Thousand and One Nights
Flagship EIF production feels like a rediscovery of a lost classic
This article is from 2011.
There’s a tremendous life force pulsating through director Tim Supple’s reclamation of these ancient folk tales. It’s a life force that exists, most palpably, for Houda Echouafni’s Shahrazad, whose survival depends on her ability to spin a yarn and leave enough of a cliff-hanger to make her husband, Assaad Bouab’s Shahrayar, delay her execution for another night. And it’s a life force that exists on a deeper level in the stories themselves, spread across a six-hour performance that grows richer and more compelling as it goes on.
Far from being the sweet bedtime stories we associate with the Arabian Nights we grew up with, these tales have a life-and-death urgency about them. In part, they show us a society trying to find order and fairness for itself, highlighting the injustices of corruption, rashness and the breakdown of trust. More specifically, they show us the challenges facing men and women of living equitably with each other.
The misogyny of part one contrasts to the feminist fight-back of part two; and both are underscored with a lusty appetite for sex by male and female alike. Indeed, it’s one of the surprises of Hanan al-Shaykh’s adaptation that these stories from a part of the world we have come to see as demur and repressed should be so raucously upfront about sex. The scene in which a servant has to guess the names three sisters give to their vaginas would have caused a stir if it was written by one of the ‘in yer face’ generation of playwrights.
This is bawdy fun, of course, but more than that, it is a reminder that sex, like stories themselves, raises the big ‘what happens next?’ question. In a production that feels like a rediscovery of a lost classic, the stories, and the stories within stories, build to a profoundly satisfying sense of resolution as the sexes find balance on their own terms.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, 473 2000. Part 1: 25, 30 Aug, 7pm; Part 2: 24, 26 Aug, 1 Sep, 7pm; Parts 1 & 2: 27, 28, 31 Aug, 2 & 3 Sep, 2pm & 5pm, £10–£36.