I'm a sucker for theatrical marathons; give me a show that kicks off early and spews its audience back on to the street long after dark. Sometimes the experience can be memorable for all the wrong reasons, like the year I agreed to review an incredibly pretentious French production of Le Soulier de Satin in Edinburgh which lasted for a mind-numbing twelve hours.
No such regrets this year, I'm glad to say. Tim Supple's production splits into two halves, and lasts a little under six hours at the Lyceum theatre. Like Black Watch a few years ago, this is a show that for me has justified the long train ride north to Edinburgh several times over. It's a magnificent theatrical experience, the fruit of several years of international collaboration with a fantastic cast drawn from all over the Arab world.
Supple doesn't have the legendary status of Peter Brook, but perhaps he should have; he's the only director I can think of whose work seems to me to speak the same creative language and embody the same theatrical virtues. The last Supple production I saw was A Midsummer Night's Dream at London's Roundhouse, with a cast drawn from all over the Indian subcontinent, and spoken in several languages as well as English. Though the acoustics were problematic, the experience was unforgettable. One Thousand and One Nights has a similar universality, with a text in Arabic, French and English by the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh. From a disparate collection of tales, she has woven together a beautifully structured sequence of dramatic stories, all wrapped inside each other. Narrative and action make up a seamless tapestry, with one tale leading on to the next and then winding back again.
Supple's theatrical idiom is Shakespearean, and the action is instantly accessible to anyone who has ever enjoyed A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest. The staging is simple and uncluttered by furniture -- an elegant rectangle with a symmetrical pattern, and a flexible wall at the back of the stage which provides doors, cupboards, prison cells and windows. There are textiles, robes, a few cushions and the occasional stool, all used to stunning effect by designer Oum Keltoum Belkassi. The sound and music are equally restrained, never overshadowing the actors. Supple and his team know exactly what they are doing; they don't overload the stage with extraneous business. Instead, a series of simple props are used to maximum effect -- baskets, a handkerchief, a dagger, an apple, a sword. One or two of the stories stray outside the world of classical Baghdad, moving forward into the present day or several thousand miles to the east in ancient China.
The dramatic tension comes from the predicament of Shahrazad, the vizier's daughter who knows that if she can't keep the king's attention with more and more exciting tales, he will chop off her head in the morning. Sex and death, as in the climactic scenes of Othello, are close neighbours. One of the great things about this show is that the violence and the eroticism and the humour are always in perfect balance, with a mixture of light and dark. There's a moment of two of (male) nudity and quite a bit of enthusiastically mimed copulation. There are donkeys, shopkeepers, princes and princesses, djinns and devils, dungeons, rich merchants and a rich trail of incidents. Eyes are plucked out (King Lear) and human beings prove over and over again that they just can't be trusted.
There's enough material in here about women to keep professors and students of gender studies fully occupied in seminar-land for years to come. The stories often revolve around the untrustworthiness of women, but the men don't come out of it very well either. Is this a religious world? No more so than Shakespeare's, I would say. What is remarkable is that this production, originally created for the Luminato arts festival in Toronto in June, would be impossible to stage anywhere in the Arab world at the moment, because of what is primly known as its sexual content. And it's notable that its UK sponsor is Shell, rather than anyone from the Middle East. Their loss is our gain -- this production is an absolute feast; I feel as privileged to have seen it as I did when I saw Peter Brook's legendary A Midsummer Night's Dream for the RSC some 40 years ago.