Monday, 22 August 2011

EIF 2011 - 1001 Nights, or, An Epic which doesn't quite achieve lift off

Tim Supple's new adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights is the dominating feature of the Festival's drama programme this year. Clocking in at around 6 hours in two parts it aspires to epic status. While there are some lovely things in it, it doesn't justify this length, and is not a wholly satisfying experience. This is a consequence of a number of issues.

First of all, the decision was taken at some stage to present this production in three languages: English, French and Arabic. As someone who despite French and German lessons long ago is only fluent in English I highly respect anyone with a command of more than one language. But the truth is that many of the performers are just not comfortable across these languages. Lack of confidence was, of course, for me as a native English speaker most obvious in that language, but hesitancies are apparent in the other tongues. This has an overall tendency to effect momentum and meaning. I'm not criticising the choice to perform in multiple languages per se, but I think it would have helped pacing and impact to have chosen a group of performers who were most comfortable in each language and had them stick to that language – the switching within speeches, and sometimes between lines, while it does sometimes strike home (the guy with the lost donkey in part two is a case in point) overall I thought lessened cohesion and punch.

Secondly, there is a lack of depth to the direction to my mind. Those of you who are familiar with the source material will know that the construction is of stories within stories within stories. The result is that one often encounters characters in one relation with each other, layers are then stripped away, and relations are revealed to be actually quite different. The surprise of those revelations is crucial to the drama from the audience's point of view – but characterisations need to be constructed on the basis of what that character can know about their situation at a given point, not what has been revealed to the audience. On too many occasions it felt as if the construction of characters was too episodic – revelations seemed as much a surprise to them as to the audience. There is an art to the construction of tensions in silences, gestures and glances that this production needed much more of.

It seems possible that this shortcoming was a consequence not just of the quality of Tim Supple's direction but also of the abilities of this company of actors. Of them all I most enjoyed the performances of Eslam Eissa and Adila Bendimerad. Their portrayals of Aziz and Aziza are the standout moment in Part One, and in Part Two both of them have beautifully judged little turns – Eslam Eissa as the kindly merchant Ghanem in Story 11 and Adila Bendimera as Khatun whose tirade in French is one of the highlights of Story 13. Others have some very good moments – both Hajar Graigaa and Houda Echouafni tell their stories in Part Two effectively – but there is too much here that is competent rather than outstanding. The show really needed a couple of absolutely A-list performers to carry it through and it doesn't quite have this.

There are also issues of structure. Now clearly any adaptation of 1001 Nights is taking on a nearly impossible task since the Penguin Classics edition is in three volumes, but this one is not completely successful. Most of the stories grow out of the coming together in a house of Three Ladies, Three Dervishes and Three Merchants and the most effective portions of the drama (because one has most space to become engaged with the plights of the characters) concern these figures (effectively Stories 3-7 in Part One and 9-12 in Part Two). Other portions go off at frustrating tangents, particularly the last portion of Part One (Story 8) and the meandering final four stories leading to the rather unsatisfactory ending where Shahrayar suddenly decides to remove the threat of death from Shahrazad. Since we have barely seen them since the opening scenes of Part One some six hours earlier it is rather difficult to engage much with this resolution, and the fact that the fates of some of the characters one has seen rather more of (especially the Three Ladies) are left up in the air only adds to the frustration.

I have not yet said much about the production. Generally this is comparatively simple – all the action takes place on the same set and different stories reuse the same basic props and lighting. I felt overall that I wanted the production to be a bit richer and again I think this was a consequence of there not being enough sense of space and tensions between the performers – there's a bit too much hanging about and movement without sufficient precision and edge to it to dispense to the extent the production does with other physical aids. One area where this emphatically does not apply was the score, performed by five superb musicians and adding excellent atmosphere throughout.

Overall I can say that it isn't really necessary to see both parts since Part Two includes a brief recap of Part One and the piece isn't sufficiently through-directed to mean that you lose crucial layers of interaction and meaning if you haven't seen everything that's gone before. For myself I found Part Two a tighter, more enjoyable and effective experience. Part One dragged badly, especially the first half which clocked in at 105 minutes. (I should note that my neighbour at Part Two took the completely opposite line). Seeing both parts, especially in one go as I did today, is a bit of a marathon and can't be unreservedly recommended. In the end, this is a show which tries hard to scale a mountain, but doesn't quite manage it.

One housekeeping note, the subtitling is the most irritating I have encountered at the Festival since Le Soulier de Satin. On that occasion so much of the spoken word was left uninterpreted as to render much of the experience incomprehensible to a non-French speaker. Here the problem is not lack of text but that whoever was in charge of it seemed to be ill-equipped (or was let down by their equipment) to match text to speech on stage. Far too frequently the titles would grind to a halt, or get three or four screens ahead of where the actors actually were. If more rehearsal is needed to sort this technical side of things out then the Festival needs to make sure that rehersal happens. The frequency of breakdowns happening in both parts today should not be accepted.

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