Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 29 April, 2002

Where other current German dramatists have been freed from comfortable decorum by the influence of British writers such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, Roland Schimmelpfennig is keener to embrace the liberation from linear naturalism. His Push Up, seen recently at the Royal Court, offered a trio of vignettes of office life pivoting on coincidence and interior monologue, and now Arabian Night, presented in a production by the Actors' Touring Company as part of Soho Theatre's "Connect Five" season, goes several steps further with its blend of urban mundanity and shimmering magic-realism.

The ostensible setting is a ten-storey block of flats, with a drudge of a janitor trying to trace a water shortage on the upper floors, a somnolent lab assistant living in apartment 732, her lodger, the latter's secret boyfriend and a voyeur from the neighbouring block. Things begin banally enough, with dropped door keys and a malfunctioning lift, leavened by characters' wry but deadpan narrations of their own thoughts and observations of each other. Gradually, though, the fantastic seeps in, then gushes out.

What seems at first to be sleepy Franziska's difficulty in telling her dreams from her waking reality (like the fable of the Chinese philosopher dreaming he is a butterfly) burgeons into full-blooded wonder, as the exotic world suggested by the title touches every character. The janitor opens a door to find himself in a desert, which is where the missing water has gone; he, Franziska and lodger Fatima all find themselves at varying times in Istanbul or the household of a fabulous sheikh; time loops back on itself; in the most bizarre transformation of all, the peeping Tom is suddenly shrunk and confined inside a brandy bottle like a powerless genie. The worlds flicker in and out of one another, enchanting the audience as much as the characters.

ATC's artistic director Gordon Anderson has shown his skill at drawing humour from poker-faced performances in bizarre situations (a decade ago, he was working with performers who would subsequently blossom into full grotesquerie as The League of Gentlemen), and this approach serves him well here. Characters shift between worlds and even entire lives, and it is the narration of these solid figures which conjures up the marvels for us; they are helped by Es Devlin's design, in which tiny tower blocks flip open to become a motorbike, a tent or to reveal the neo-genie's live, full-size head on a tiny puppet body. There is no neat resolution or universal return to normality; what counts here, as in the Thousand And One Nights, is the pleasure of the story, shifting and impermanent as the desert sands.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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