'Arab Nights' - Metta Theatre
‘Arab Nights’ combines six short plays by writers from across the Middle East and North Africa to offer a range of perspectives on the Arab Spring. These texts are framed within the basic premise of the ‘1001 Nights’, each being introduced by Shahrazad, the woman whose nightly tales so entranced the Shah that he refrained from beheading her.
In a slightly uncomfortable piece of participation, the audience is made to play the Shah and is expected to approve the telling of each tale (no one dared but inevitably we were tempted to opt for execution). The docility of the audience neuters the supposed tyrannical nature of the Shah and makes Shahrazad’s resistance seem more comical than subversive.
The ensemble makes use of simple costumes, object manipulation, digital projections and live music to jump from palaces to airplanes to the troubled night streets of Cairo. William Reynold’s simple but effective set – a wall of 1001 white shoe boxes – provides a blank canvas for projections and a repository for the various objects that form the world of the six plays. Shoe boxes become laptops, produce over-sexed goats and of course shoes: constantly referencing their symbolism in the Arab Spring as objects of both protest and oppression.
As entertaining as the visuals are, it is telling of the company’s strengths that the most engaging moment of the evening, a play by an anonymous Iranian writer, is also the simplest: a storytelling monologue artfully performed by Lachen Razzougui during which the audience are told to close their eyes. While the actors are confident with their vocal performance, they are visibly less so with object manipulation, much of it seeming slightly awkward and under-rehearsed.
Individual moments of this production are truly powerful and thought provoking. However, the whole needs more shaping and direction to break up the repetitive nature of successive short plays. More importantly the structure needs to address the dislocation of the majority of the audience from the actuality of the Arab Spring.
Perhaps too often these tales become vehicles for passive entertainment rather than engaged participation. However, when the right note is struck, they are truly chilling and disturbing accounts of political upheaval, oppression and the difficulties surrounding revolution.
'Arab Nights' by Metta Theatre, supported by English Touring Theatre, played at the Soho Theatre from 21 November - 1 December 2012