fri 24/05/2019

Arab Nights, Soho Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Arab Nights, Soho Theatre

Arab Nights, Soho Theatre

A topical, pared-down adaptation of The 1001 Arabian Nights

Looking for the light: Dina Mousawi as Shahrazad © Richard Davenport

Given the present Middle East uproar, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that contemporary versions of The 1001 Arabian Nights are sprouting everywhere. With their variety of stories and roots in countries undergoing such political upheaval, they offer rich and important pickings.

The Tricycle next week opens a version for the Christmas season aimed at younger audiences. Before that, at the Soho, Metta Theatre’s co-founder and young director Poppy Burton-Morgan has come up with a bravely topical, stripped-down adaptation from six writers drawn from across the region. Their impact varies but the narratives share one thing: the power of a story to reflect changing lives and to change lives.

The primal urgency of a story that must be told has produced some of theatre’s finest, from Shakespeare through to Bulgakov and Havel. And so it is that Arab Nights shows the ability of a young wife, Scheherazade, to stave off execution from her husband, the Sultan, by keeping him constantly beguiled with various tales.

In Metta’s intimate 90-minute version, three actors create a multifarious world of satire, metaphorical symbolism and (sometimes) hilarity, using basic story-telling but also other devices such as music, puppetry and video. Burton-Morgan and her designer, William Reynolds, have also hit on a wonderful centralising motif: the shoe. The back of the Soho’s studio space is dominated by a wall of shoe boxes, and the shoe continues as a centralising image throughout.

During the Arab Spring and before, the shoe emerged as a symbol of rebellion. As the programme reminds us, it was 14 December, 2008, when a young Iraqi threw a shoe at President Bush in protest at a press conference in Baghdad. A year later, on 17 December, a Tunisian street seller immolated himself when his goods were confiscated.

Dina Mousawi’s Shahrazad (as the iconic Persian figure is here spelled) begins by trying to turn on a light-bulb. It’s broken, of course. She lights a match, a potent image of what has overtaken the Middle East. Later she exhorts her sister not to be afraid: “Fear is like fire. If you don’t control it, it will rise up and destroy you.” Mousawi (pictured below) is a beguiling performer; as a shoe-obsessed dictator’s wife in Lebanese writer Tania El Khoury’s The Tale of the Dictator’s Wife, she arches her back, spreads her legs, and taps at an online iPad store of stiletto shoes. Greed then gives way to desperation when the tag line flashes up “account frozen”. The revolution has begun.

At other times, some of what is on view seems diffuse – the entry, for instance, from Iraqi writer Hassan Abdulrazzak, whose award-winning debut play Baghdad Wedding, premiered at Soho in 2007. His Tale of Sinbad and the Old Goat transforms a time-honoured narrative into a potentially devastating critique of exiled extremist clerics. But its aim is not altogether clear, nor is Palestinian Raja Shehadeh’s look at the effect of living under Israeli enclosure or Egyptian writer Chirine El Ansary’s otherwise stunning (and pointedly dehumanising) image of women as plastic corpses on the banks of the Nile. If only the playing were sharper.

Metta is at its best in genial, gentle audience participation and the effect of small gestures. French-Moroccan actor, Lahcen Razzougui, for example, turns into a bereft Damascan mother with the subtlest of hand movements in Syrian writer Ghalia Kabbani’s The Tale of the Lady of Damascus. And he is spell-binding in probably the most telling moment of the evening in The Tale in His Mind. Written sadly and ironically by the one Persian/Iranian who has to remain nameless for reasons of safety, the actor reminds us what it must be like to put your life on the line for an ideal. “Close your eyes,” he tells the audience. “Take each other’s hands.’’

Death intervenes, and a member of the audience is asked to come forward and read a paragraph from the book that the actor holds, 1001 Nights. Nobody stirs. In that moment, political reality becomes visceral theatre. And transformative, too.

Political reality becomes visceral theatre. And transformative, too

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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