ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS parts 1 and 2
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2011
***

Five years ago, Tim Supple’s international, multicultural theatre company Dash Arts announced its arrival with a fizzing, polyglot Midsummer Night’s Dream. They followed this up with a version of As You Like It which seemed entirely a prisoner of the debut’s success, trying at every moment both to be like it and unlike it, and deadly dull as a result. This mammoth, two-part adaptation of the classic Arabic compendium has found some of its mojo once again, but not enough.

The RSC’s adaptation for Christmas 2009, although it discreetly hymned the virtues of tolerance and mercy, was primarily a collection of ripping yarns. This version does not have such a priority, despite sharing one or two of the same tales amongst its selection of 20 or so and despite Shahrazad’s storytelling skills being all that keep her alive from night to night in the framing narrative. Supple and adapter Hanan al-Shaykh like the storytelling, and especially nested third- or even fourth-degree narratives: they like it so much they could not cut the work down to a single show, and indeed break this diptych midway through a linked series of stories. But, particularly through Part Two, matters begin to focus on relations between the sexes; Shahrazad has been put in her precarious position because her husband is convinced he can no longer trust women, but as the stories progress we begin to see, along with him, the at least equal perfidy of men and the resourcefulness of women in dealing with it. Even more than this, the collection feels specifically Muslim in tone: the noble and sympathetic qualities it affirms, and also the upright concerns with honour and rectitude, feel as if they spring from that particular religious culture.

This is absolutely not what holds the production back. Its principal drag is rather that Supple as director seems to treat the material, though not because of its religious component, with too much reverence. The tales vary in register from high to Chaucerian-bawdy, but Supple begins at a stately, almost ritual pace and only varies it a little through five hours of playing time. That's a lot of time to spend at one speed; the surtitles to the English/French/Arabic dialogue have the right idea, galloping and slowing… it’s simply a pity that the action itself doesn’t match them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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