As it currently stands, “One Thousand and One Nights,” now in its world premiere run in Toronto, is 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.
Created by Tim Supple and his Dash Arts organization — responsible for the enormously successful Indian version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that toured Europe, Asia and North America — “Nights” is an attempt to reclaim the power of the original stories by presenting them with a company drawn from around the Arabic world.
After being forced to leave their original rehearsal venue in Alexandria, Egypt, due to the civil unrest there, the production relocated to Fes in Morocco, where everyone involved worked intensively for 10 weeks before moving to Toronto for final technical rehearsals.
Supple commissioned a new translation of the stories from Lebanese feminist author Hanan al-Shaykh, intending to remove the elaborations and expurgations that have crept in over the centuries. What remains is the basic story of Shahrazad, who tells a different tale every night to the vengeful King Sharayar to keep him from marrying and then executing the virgins of the city in a crusade intended to make up for his wife’s infidelity.
Working on a bare stage with the audience on three sides, Supple rapidly sketches out the world of violence, sexuality and vengefulness that drives the stories. His opening sequences are powerfully striking and as the stories gradually unfold — some humourous, some bittersweet, some tragic — you can sense real power.
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.
The company comprises 19 actors, all passionate performers, and even when it’s not possible to understand everything they’re saying, their emotions are clearly felt. Assaad Bouab as a dashing Caliph, Saad Al Ghefari as a man of many sorrows and Houda Echouafni as the charming Shahrazad are especially effective.
There is an impressive theater piece inside “One Thousand anf One Nights” struggling to get free. One hopes time and work will release it.