Daily Archives: August 23, 2011

One Thousand And One Nights

One Thousand And One Nights
King’s Theatre
3 stars ***

THE BATTLE OF THE sexes rages for six long hours in Tim Supple’s vast and colourful multinational staging of the great Arabic epic One Thousand And One Nights, which had its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum on Sunday; but alas, to much less effect than the theme deserves, at this critical turning-point in Arab and world history.

Adapted from the original text by Supple himself and the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, this version of the One Thousand And One Nights tells a series of 16 stories, in two three-hour chunks, and in a style that moves sinuously from illustrated narrative to direct performance and back again. And in story after story – beginning with the central tale of the lovely Shahrazad, who escapes her once-betrayed husband’s murderous vengeance against all women by telling him stories so spellbinding that he cannot bring himself to have her executed – we see women abused by men, raped, disbelieved, betrayed and lied to, summarily murdered, or ostracised and deliberately marked; and, wherever women can muster enough power to get their own back, we see men too being deceived, cajoled, cuckolded, and damaged.

It’s part of the magic of this mighty epic, though, that the mood is not often tragic. It has wild, surreal humour and light-touch jokery; and a constant awareness that if men and women can damage one another, it’s precisely because of the sweetness of the mutual desire that drawn them together in the first place, raunchily portrayed, in this version of the story, in one fierce sexual encounter after another, consensual and otherwise.

The problem with Supple’s version, though, is that it has not found a style which enables it fully to exploit the huge contemporary significance of its theme. The most obvious influence on its look and sound, and its illustrated-narrative technique, lies in Peter Brook’s mighty Mahabharata, created with a similar transnational company in the mid-1980’s. A quarter of a century on, though, Supple’s neo-traditional style begins to look painfully old-fashioned, and often irritatingly whimsical.

What is most important, though, is that this style, in the end, prevents the show from developing the kind of narrative cutting-edge it needs to create a compelling theatrical experience for a 21st century audience; and the consequences of this failure show up in long, lifeless passages of half-hearted jokery, and some pretty routine acting. Hidden within this show, there lies a great continuing meditation on the nature of oppression; on the fear, self-pity and paranoia of the oppressors, and the great human weapons – wit, music, storytelling, art – that no-one can ever quite take away from the oppressed.

Painfully absent, though, is the look, the imagery, the living debate about new kinds of freedom in the Arab world, which has raged during the show’s rehearsal period, and that would have linked this mighty epic decisively to our contemporary experience. And the result is an attractive but disappointing show, finally too long, too shapeless, and not bold enough – intellectually or artistically – to do full justice to its material.

Joyce McMillan
Until 3 September
eif p. 20


Free Time Radical

Free Time Radical
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****

BILLED AS “an epic tale of domestic proportions”, this new play from the company who created 2008 Fringe First winner Paperweight takes a familiar genre of lad comedy – the one about the two thirtysomething guys who still want to live like teenagers – and pushes it to a rare and intriguing extreme. Free Time Radical is set in a flat in London, where two men who have met in a pub, both keen on surfing, apparently find themselves trapped by a huge tsunami which has swept away most of Britain.

There’s something uneasy and ironic in this collision between hideous tragedy and trustafarian leisure cult; and the sense of creative, poetic unease continues and builds through a surreal hour, as the two characters – the married one who has waved goodbye to his wife through the sealed windows of their fast-drowning house, the single one who might or might not be gay – divide up their few cans of food, calculate that they can last for nine days, and embark on an intriguing see-saw between laddish banter, and abject tragic failure to deal with the world beyond the flat.

In the end, the bubble of illusion bursts, and the married one – played with terrific flair by Tom Frankland, with Sebastien Lawson equally persuasive as his sidekick – heads off home. And despite several false endings, leading to a long-drawn-out final 15 minutes, there’s something deep going on in a play, co-written by the company with director Jamie Wood, that can gaze so mercilessly at the truth that many grown men, in some moods, would rather see the world swept away by a tidal wave, than go home from the pub, love their wives, and shoulder their responsibility for the next generation.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
p. 264