Saturday, June 18, 2011

One Thousand and One Nights - opens in Canada

Back in February 2010 we reported on the visit to Fez of theatre director Tim Supple. Tim is well known as the creator of an Indian version of A Midsummer Night's Dream a few years ago.  He was in Fez to look for performers for his latest project -  to create a new version of The Arabian Nights. It has just opened in Canada.

Houda Echouafni, left, and Saad Al Ghefari
As we pointed out at the time, The Arabian Nights are the 1,000-year-old folk tales told by Sheherazade which most westerners wrongly associate with characters such as Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin – it is doubtful that any of these three were part of the original collection. Supple wanted to discover the lost truths of the stories and worked with Lebanese feminist author, Hanan al-Shaykh, who spent time reading all 1,001 stories in their original Arabic.

Tim Supple
"We are trying to create a theatrical version of The Arabian Nights which will do justice to the scale, depth and richness of the stories," said Supple. At the time Supple said he anticipated it being performed in Arabic, English and Hindi, and says it could be anything from a two-hour production to an eight-hour epic

Well, after weeks of rehersals at Palais Mokri in Fez, the now six hour long production has opened at the  Luminato Festival in Toronto, who funded Supple's London-based Dash Arts project.

Palais Mokri rehearsal space
However, the opening was not as successful as Supple had hoped. Variety critic, Richard Ouzounian, described it as a... "deeply flawed but potentially powerful piece of work which needs some major editing and re-focusing to achieve the success that was hoped for it, with organizations including Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Edinburgh Festival buying it sight unseen prior to its debut in a commission from the Luminato Festival of Creativity and the Arts."

Photo courtesy of Arts National

There is an impressive theater piece inside "One Thousand anf One Nights" struggling to get free. One hopes time and work will release it." ~ Richard Ouzounian

After being forced to leave their original rehearsal venue in Alexandria, Egypt, due to the civil unrest there, the production relocated to Palais Mokri here in Fez, where everyone involved worked intensively for 10 weeks before moving to Toronto for final technical rehearsals.

Supple and team members working in Fez
Richard Ouzounian continues... For the first half of this six-hour presentation, it's possible to empathize and enjoy the work. But the show seems to have run out of time in the rehearsal hall when it comes to the second half, which loses focus and turns into a random assortment of acted-out stories, relentlessly pursuing the theme of devious women driving jealous men to acts of violence.

At this point, it is safe to say that the final two hours could be excised without anything of real significance being lost.

Another problem comes in the way the tales are related. The actors speak a mix of English, French and Arabic, with surtitles filling in the gaps when necessary. But -- at least in the Toronto venue -- the surtitles aren't properly placed and are often out of sync. When the actors try to speak English, only a handful of them are able to communicate with the necessary clarity.

However, when "One Thousand and One Nights" works, it does so very well. The silken splendor of Zolaykha Sherzad's costumes, the rich texture of Sabri El Atrous' lighting and the sculptural quality of Supple's staging are often magical.

On the plus side is the fact that Tim's time in Fez created a huge amount of work for local people, including Culture Vulture maven, Jess Stephens (pictured above with set dressing carpets.)

You can read Variety's full review here.

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