The Arab world's One Thousand and One Nights, a string of folk tales told by Shahrazad, the legendary vizier's daughter, to enthrall the lethally misogynistic King Shahrayar, masquerades as a bunch of suspenseful and humorous bedtime stories.
But it is really a revolutionary proto-feminist tract.
That may seem surprising, given the West's view that our democracies are streets ahead on women's lib. However, a household of sisters who refuse to marry, defying a Caliph's orders, are at the core of director Tim Supple's outstanding dramatisation. Co-adapted by Lebanon-born novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, this is being performed by a globetrotting, Arabic-speaking cast at the Edinburgh International Festival. The sisters, like Shahrazad, are threatened with execution. Yet it's the Caliph who ends up conceding ground to them.
Infused with a warm golden light, Supple's staging looks beautifully simple. In this, he is very much Peter Brook's successor. An antique, wooden portal forms the backdrop. A few rugs are strewn on the floor. And the multiplying stories fluidly intertwine as the cast, often barefoot, slip between storytelling, listening, or playing characters in the tales.
Structurally, though, this six-hour epic is an elaborate arabesque. It's like a fantastic tree of ever-branching stories which range from Bluebeardish horrors to slapstick vignettes. Each story subtly ties in with Shahrazad's overarching mission: to cure Shahrayar of his misogyny and turn him into a judicious ruler who listens to the case histories of deviants and understands people's deeper motivations and flaws, frustrations and aspirations. The topicality of this – from the Arab Spring to post-riot Britain – doesn't need spelling out.
Despite the emphatic feminist slant, this adaptation is far from sociologically simplistic. Male characters can be heartbreakingly tender before, suspecting adultery, they flip into shocking violence. And Assaad Bouab's psychologically complex Shahrayar has, underneath his sexual abusiveness, a sorely wounded heart.
Aside from some longueurs and out-of-synch surtitles, on the day I attended, this was quietly wonderful, world-class theatre, blessedly free of Aladdin-style glitter. A jinni, emerging furious from a bottle, looked like a lardy bruiser lightly smeared with soot, the tiniest hint of dark powers in the black feathered bracelet on his bicep.
The choreographed sex scenes are also the most refreshingly brilliant I've ever seen. With Imen Smaoui as movement associate, those scenes run the gamut from wild orgiastic swinging to cold brutality to scampering hilarity with an extraordinarily well-judged mix of poetic stylisation, graphic authenticity and abandon.
The National Youth Theatre's new play Our Days of Rage boldy grapples with hot topics – protesters and riots, militant terrorists and Muammar Gaddafi. As the audience is led through murky caverns under Waterloo station, we are basically tracking the fictional life story of Libyan-born Hanna. Circa 1969, we see her naming ceremony when she's photographed, as in infant, in the arms of the VIP guest: a smiling and clearly admired Gaddafi. But, 10 years on, Hanna's journalist father has become increasingly critical of the dictatorship, and Gaddafi's henchmen viciously persecute and traumatise the family. Emigrating to Britain, her mother's homeland, Daniella Isaacs' Hanna rejects her father's culture, won't join in the 1980s protests outside the Libyan Embassy; and turns into a hard-nosed banker. Finally, however, shaken by Nato bombing of Libyan civilians, she turns into a suicide bomber in SE1.
Alas, her motives are garbled, not helped by the script being an assemblage of scenes by nine young writers. But the ensemble acting is commendably assured, and Paul Roseby's production has some exciting moments, police charging out of the fog.
Finally, South Pacific has arrived in the UK, fanfared as a dazzling production from New York's Lincoln Center. Well, Bartlett Sher's staging proved mildly underwhelming on press night. Playing Nellie, the US Naval Base nurse, posted on a tropical island during the Second World War, EastEnders' Samantha Womack seemed bland against the beige sand, held back by a broken toe. Still, Rodgers and Hammerstein were startlingly bold, tackling the issue of American racism at the same time as writing lovely, wafting, romantic tunes. And the opera singer Paulo Szot nearly raises the roof, as Nellie's determined suitor Emile, with his richly vibrant, showstopping rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening".
'One Thousand and One Nights' (0131-473 2000) to 3 Sep; 'Our Days of Rage' (0844 871 7628) to 15 Sep; 'South Pacific' (0845 120 7550) to 1 Oct, touring to 4 Feb
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