ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS
‘One Thousand and One Nights’ or most commonly referred to as Arabian Nights or 'Alf Layla wa-Layla' in Arabic. As children we’ve all heard and read these stories. So when Tim Supple's version of the classic tales came to Toronto as part of the fifth annual ‘Luminato’ festival, this was a must watch.
For those who are unaware, the basic story involves a Persian king who was shocked to discover his wife's infidelity and has her executed, but in his bitterness and grief decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights.
The original stories never included the children’s stories of ‘Alladin’ or ‘Ali Baba’. These were incorporated by the Europeans translators. What many are still unaware, even me, was that the original tales were anything but for children. They were highly graphic and highly sexual in nature. And that’s the version of the tales that Tim Supple used in this version.
The play itself was of 2 parts of 3 hours each, adapted by Lebanese author Hanan al-Shayak comprised of 19 performers from Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Dubai, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and Alexandria. Not to mention 5 wonderful musician’s.
I will not go into the details of the 20 stories used (else reading this will be longer the play itself). Staying true to the source, the stories are complex, involve multiple characters and interweaving plots and feature elements of treachery, mistaken identity, tragedy and comedy. The language was predominantly in Arabic with bits of French and English thrown in. For the benefit of those who don’t know Arabic, the setup involved 4 tv screens with subtitles.
Of the performers Houda Echouafni and Ramzi Choukair were a class apart from the others. Assad Bouab as King Sharayar and the Caliph was very dynamic. The five piece orchestral ensemble, providing striking and appropriate music throughout is also one of the show’s highlights which appealed to me highly, probably had to do a lot with my Arabic culture up bringing. (I spent a lot of my early years in the Gulf)
The set design didn’t quite match the epic scale of the story telling. The thrust stage setup with audience on 3 sides wasn’t fitting well in the space. The big door at the back which was used as a cupboard mostly and as dark space where actors would come and go was a disappointment. Also considering the space was mainly designed for an Opera, the acoustics wasn’t that great. Keeping an eye on the performance and reading subtitles is quite a task and considering that’s 95% of the play was hard to really follow a lot of story telling. Also the subtitles kept getting stuck so suddenly one was left clueless as too what was happening. The English is far between, that one still ends up looking for subtitles for the English spoken words.
But all in all, think it was the grand story telling that kept me enthralled over the 2 days. I would suggest that if you ever get a chance to watch it, do leave your young ones at home. Else you’ll be left needing to explain what the dildo represented to your child (true story!) in the middle of the performance. By the way, one scene even involved a glimpse of an actor’s penis.
Even though the tales ultimately lead to stereotypes - women are devious, men are gullible and when a man realized he has been fooled, he is likely to respond with violence, ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ is a must watch for theatre lovers. To quote a line from another play “The first duty of a story teller is to tell a story” – I think this play achieved just that.