“One hundred and one pounds of fun, that’s my little honey bun...” is what we’ll all be singing in South Pacific this week, but one thousand and one nights with the stories of Shahrazad are just as beguiling.
Well, terrifying, too. Tim Supple’s two three-hour plays, scripted by the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, are all about the terrible treatment of women in the Arab world, ironically recounted by Shahrazad to save her own neck after sleeping with the king, Shahrayar; in revenge for his wife having sex with a kitchen boy, Shahrayar is copping and killing a new virgin each night.
The stories are a diversion he cannot resist. Nor can we. This is an X-rated, revelatory version of the Arabian Nights, a far cry indeed from Aladdin or Sinbad the Sailor, black and bestial: a wild phallic orgy is followed by a game of rude names foreplay, frenzied mutilation, sexual deception, torture, revenge and harsh, barbaric justice.
On a square, under-lit stage, the stories unravel inside each other, as Shahrazad’s tale of the fisherman and the Jinni (genie in our pantomimes) leads to that of the fisherman’s brother, a porter, who tells of three one-eyed dervishes visiting the house of three beautiful women, three merchants in disguise and two abused female dogs.
Shahrazad (or, Sheherezade), and her devoted sister, enter their own fabulous campaign as two of these women, while the Shahrayar actor, Assaad Bouab, returns as one of the merchants and, later, as both the Caliph and the poet Haroun Al-Rashid.
Supple’s cast of sexy, engaging Middle Eastern actors speak in English, Arabic and French – this in itself is very moving – accompanied by sur-titles and five musicians, with beautiful, authentic costumes by Zolaykha Sherzad.
Each play can be seen separately, but I’d recommend the first, just, over the second. The performance is spirited and graceful, with stand-out contributions from Houda Echouafni as Shahrazad, Nanda Mohammad as the first lady, Fatima Zohra Lahouitar as a string of femmes fatales, Ramzi Choukair as the randy Porter and Jamal Choukair as the King of China’s favourite hunchback.