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


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