Luminato 2011 Review: One Thousand and One Nights (Dash Arts and Luminato)

Toronto’s Luminato Festival presents the world-premiere of a two-part epic staging of One Thousand and One Nights by director Tim Supple at The Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (Canadian Opera Company) through June 19.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Dash Arts production of One Thousand and One Nights commissioned by Luminato ever since it was announced last year. I was absolutely floored by director Tim Supple’s previous production at Luminato in 2008; the stunning, avant-garde re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring an Indian/Sri Lankan cast performing in English, Hindi, Bengali, Sinhalese, Sanskrit and a host of other Indian dialects.

Supple’s production of Dream was so dynamic, vibrant, gorgeous, sexy and utterly breathtaking that I couldn’t wait to see what he’d come up with for his re-imagining of another classic story.

One Thousand and One Nights is a pivotal work of Arab fiction. It is a story cycle told by Shahrazad over the course of 1001 nights to King Shahrayar. Shahrayar has vowed to marry a virgin every night and kill her in the morning in revenge for his wife’s infidelity. Shahrazad tells her stories to the King night after night to stay her death sentence.

Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh adapted the stories for this production and they’re definitely not the kid-friendly tales like Aladdin and Ali Baba that Western audiences are familiar with. Staying true to their source, the stories are complex, they involve multiple characters and interweaving plots and feature elements of treachery, mistaken identity, tragedy, comedy and hubris.

For his ambitious production, Supple and his team sought out actors, musicians and designers from across the Arabic speaking world. He has assembled a capable ensemble and as the play delves deeper and deeper into Shahrazad’s intricate stories, each cast member deftly portrays a host of different characters.

The performance often has a raw intensity and a simmering sexual quality that sometimes erupts into scenes of explicit sex and brutal violence. The production doesn’t shy away from these more adult elements. While these elements are tastefully staged, the production probably wouldn’t be suitable for kids under the age of 13.

The staging isn’t quite what I was expecting based on Supple’s previous work on Dream. I was hoping to see a greater focus on the song and dance elements. I think integrating more song and dance elements into the show would have added more energy to the performance.

I enjoy the way live music is infused into the storytelling. The production features a band playing instruments like the oud and doduk. The music underscores the action of the play like in a movie and at times serves to drive the action forward or heighten the emotion of the scene.

The show is performed in Arabic, French and English, in that order of prominence. Although I’m used to reading surtitles at the opera it took me a while to get used to switching my focus back and forth between the screens and the action on stage.

The performance takes place on a massive thrust stage with the audience surrounding it on three sides. There are screens with surtitles on all sides of the auditorium but since I was sitting in the side section, sometimes the actors blocked my line of sight to the screen. Placing a few more screens around the auditorium might alleviate the problem.

I also find the production design modest for a show of this scope and scale. While the scenic and costume designs serve their purpose, Supple’s staging isn’t as inventive or dazzling as his concept for Dream in which he covered the stage in a pit of sand and had actors flying through the air and climbing up and down scaffolding. A little more scenic eye candy would have definitely helped the production live up to its epic scope.

Clocking in at a total running time of close to six hours, the two performances thoroughly cover the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. However, after a while, the shows do start to feel a bit long and repetitive and the pace tends to drag in the middle of both parts. I don’t feel it necessarily needs to be told in two parts.

Luckily, each segment is complete enough to stand-alone so you don’t have to make the full six-hour commitment to get a taste of the Nights. Seeing either part alone would be sufficient and the two parts are about evenly matched in terms of content.

While the stories are compelling and the performers often engaging, the marathon run-time really stretches their abilities and the production design doesn’t quite live up to the epic expectations.

Details:

  • One Thousand and One Nights
  • A Dash Arts Production, Luminato Commission
  • Dramatized and directed by Tim Supple
  • Stories adapted by Hanan al-Shaykh
  • Performed in English, Arabic, and French, with surtitles
  • June 7 – 19 at the Canadian Opera Company, The Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, 227 Front Street East, Toronto, ON M5A 1E8

Photo credit:

– Hajar Graigaa in One Thousand and One Nights Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann