This show is legendary in so many ways. In the first place, it’s a pulling together and retelling of one of the great story cycles of all time, the story of Scheherazade, who told her evil husband Shahryār an unfinished story every night so that he wouldn’t kill her in the morning, as he had done to all his other wives. We also know this story cycle as The Arabian Nights, folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, which was first published in English in 1706. Although not all versions have 1001 stories, there are many that we have known from childhood — Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor being among the most popular.
This production also features the work of three of Brisbane’s legendary theatre creators, designer Bill Haycock, and writing, directing and acting team Helen Howard and Michael Futcher. Haycock is a world-renowned designer, but has always been based in Queensland, and Howard and Futcher, like a number of married theatre couples, have also chosen to stay here and given us inspired ground-breaking theatre from their early days as Matrix Theatre Company, who burst on a jaded Brisbane theatre scene like refreshing nectar. All three are multi-award winners, all have that magical gift that can lift us out of the everyday, and all show us why live theatre will never die, because it does things on a smaller scale than opera, ballet and flashy musicals can never do. It’s accessible, wondrous, and often, in the best possible ways, leads us back to the delights and wonder of childhood.
Of course it’s impossible to condense all 1001 stories into a two-hour performance, but Howard and Futcher have picked six of the best, some very familiar, but with an unexpected twist (Ali Baba, Aladdin, for example), some very short and incredibly funny (The Little Hunchback). The dressing of the set is spectacular, achieved mostly just with shawls and scarves and lengths of literally gorgeous Middle Eastern fabrics (one day I’m going to get Bill Haycock to reveal his supplier), and the ensemble of actors and dancers from Zen Zen Zo are inventive shape-shifters, a mere five of them performing at least 50 characters that I could count.
From the beginning we are whisked away into a world of fantasy tales that are that are legendary in true sense of the word, totally unbelievable in one sense, but in their own context containing universal undying truths. Truth, as we know, lies at the bottom of a well, and there are mythic truths as well as, and possibly more important than, historical truths. As theologian Elaine Pagels once said of the Bible, another great story cycle from the historical past, such stories are not history with a message; they are myths with a meaning.
And what meanings we find here — not just the ones we expect about love, justice, mercy and redemption, but the truth that story is the most important thing human beings has going for them. We are story-telling animals, once of our great gifts that separate us from the animals, and here we find that there are stories within stories, down to the third and fourth level, that they are often intertwined, and that no story is as simple as it seems.
And one other great thing that Futcher and Howard have done here is to set these stories in their original context — we probably know the frame of Scheherazade and the thousand and one nights, but do we know why the wicked sultan became like this? I had forgotten, just as I had forgotten the final ending, nor did I know that during this period of 1000 days (over two-and-a-half years) Scheherazade had borne him three children, but still lived in dread that she would be killed the next morning.
This theme of unjust husbands and abused wives is in almost all the stories, but in many of them it is the women who are the tricksters and win out in the end, so the adaptation also emphasises the strong feminist influence in the tales.
The members of the ensemble — Dan Crestani, Gavin Edwards, Steven Rooke, Isabella Tannock and Tina Torabi — all give low-key but inspired performances, and among their multiple roles I was particularly enchanted by Dan Crestani’s tumbling hunchback, Gavin Edwards’ naughty childish Ali Baba, Steve Rooke’s magnificent cold-hearted Sultan and his totally different Aladdin, Isabella Tannock’s Scherazade, and the incredibly gorgeous Tina Torabi in her multiple, shifting roles from the younger sister to an old woman. What an ensemble!
And what brings it all together is the Queensland Music Festival’s contribution to the show in the form of three musicians whom I hadn’t known about before; Cieavash Arean who for over 40 years has taught himself traditional Middle Eastern music and vocal training, and plays the oud, the kamanche, nay, tar, flute and many other instruments westerners know nothing of; Sallie Campbell playing all manner of stringed instruments including the dulcimer and the five-string violin; and Faraz Habazi, the master of various tympani. They bring the show together, mainly as totally appropriate background music linking the stories together, but with an occasional individual performance which had the audience in a frenzy of appreciation.
I could see this show at least a hundred times, if not necessarily a thousand — like Scherazade, I mightn’t have that many nights left — but I wish it had a longer season, because so far it’s the best thing I’ve seen in Brisbane this year. And surely it must tour nationally, if not internationally — in the big festival circuit if nowhere else. Melbourne, Adelaide, Edinburgh, you need this show. Congratulations to all concerned and, if I gave ratings, this would get 12 out of 10.
The details: 1001 Nights plays the GreenHouse, Queensland Theatre Company until July 28. Tickets on the company website.