ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS/THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE/YOU ONCE SAID YES/A MACHINE TO SEE WITH/THE ADVENTURES OF WOUND MAN AND SHIRLEY
We're somewhere in the middle of the six-hour marathon that is One Thousand And One Nights and I'm feeling a mild sensation of panic. What's happened is that Shahrazad has been telling a story to delay the moment when her husband Shahrayar will kill her (it’s a tough bargain, but everything has a life-or-death urgency in this show). I can cope with that, but then one of the characters in Shahrazad's story starts telling a story of their own. And then in this story – if I am keeping up correctly – a character tells yet another story.
I worry we're getting in too deep, that we won't be able to withdraw through each level of story without losing the thread. I see exactly what director Tim Supple means when he says these tales, although ancient, share the same narrative blueprint as Inception, that very 21st-century movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio has to journey into someone else's dream within a dream within a dream and get out unscathed before the whole edifice falls apart.
Stories and dreams fulfil similar functions and, if you agree with David Mamet that theatre is a way of dreaming in public, then One Thousand And One Nights is the equivalent of deep, rewarding REM sleep. It's like one of those nights when you dream you are dreaming, when each dream seems to affect the next and, at the end of it all, you seem to wake up changed. These are stories not dreams, but in this production, performed with stripped-back Peter Brook-style simplicity by actors and musicians from across the Arab world, they create the same dizzying feeling.
Like your dreams, these stories have no censor. Lusts and anxieties have free reign. In the first ten minutes alone, the show ticks off adultery, inter-racial orgies, mass murder, the deflowering of virgins, even the death of an innocent bird. No suggestion here of the anodyne tales of the Arabian Nights we grew up with as children nor of the modesty and repression we associate with the Middle East of today. These stories, starting with the brutal one-virgin-a-night premise, are frank, vicious and uncompromised. They have no place for religious decorum or bourgeois prudishness.
And like the deepest sleep, the show reaps its rewards at the end of the night. Just as your brain brings order to the chaos of your waking mind, resolving the seemingly irresolvable, so One Thousand And One Nights starts with schism and ends in harmony. The world it presents is full of snap judgments, summary executions and heavy-handed justice. Men are possessive, corrupt and self-serving, but perhaps it isn't misogyny alone that makes them accuse the women of being wily, licentious and deceitful. The challenge is for the sexes to meet each other on their own terms, not a power struggle but a marriage of equals. When finally they reach that point after so much conflict and chaos, it is a moment of profound satisfaction.
Stories were central also to the week's other Edinburgh International Festival theatre production The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, this time creating an even greater impression of a hallucinatory dream. Adapted from the 600-page novel by Haruki Murakami, Stephen Earnhart's multi-disciplinary production took us into a David Lynchian landscape of red velvet hotel corridors, random acts of violence, strange meditations at the bottom of a well, agents with psychic powers and haunting stories from Japan's military past, as it told the tale of one man's attempt to find the wife who has left him without warning or explanation.
Where the stories of the One Thousand And One Nights seek to bring clarity, Murakami's other-worldly tales aim to take the reader into a metaphysical realm, a quasi-spiritual place of symbols and coincidences where meaning is always elusive. In this world premiere, Earnhart went a long way to finding a theatrical equivalent of this heightened realism with a busy blend of shadow play, bunraku puppetry, large-scale projections, live sound effects and more. Compared with Supple's elemental approach, Earnhart's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink barrage seemed to be compensating for the lack of a simple theatrical aesthetic, but he did it with enough gusto to cover most of the cracks.
The Fringe, as ever, is awash with stories, although with such a surfeit of choice, it is often novelties that get people talking. For instance, when you tell people about doing You Once Said Yes (and it is one of those shows that you "do" rather than "see"), you go on about the mechanics of it, how you meet someone in a tiny room in the Underbelly and she tells you to head down towards the Cowgate to see what happens. Once there, you are approached by a tourist searching for a youth hostel and before you know it, you're being whisked along the street, then bundled into a car where you briefly become a player in a heist until your story is rumbled and you fall into the arms of a children's entertainer who wants you to carry her balloons up the High Street. In this way, you are propelled through town like a human baton in a freeform relay race until, some time later, you wind up having a drink and a song in the Captains Bar.
Told like this, it sounds like a great gimmick, but the reason the show by Look Left Look Right has lasting appeal is its basis in storytelling. Cleverly staged though it is, the show is really a series of character studies and, on your magical mystery tour, you hear stories from a lawyer, a drifter, a gardener, a student, an entrepreneur and so on, all of them caught up in some dilemma or figuring out how to deal with some opportunity. Together they form a patchwork of life as it is lived, adding depth and resonance to the thrill of an unconventional presentation.
Blast Theory is attempting something similar in A Machine To See With in which the solitary audience member is guided through the streets taking instructions from a recorded voice via mobile phone. The company wants you to feel like you are the star of your own crime movie, the figure in close up who steps out of the crowd to rob a bank. Actually, you feel like someone playing an entertaining, but essentially silly game, making what you can of the instructions but never really getting into character. There's a well executed twist in which you hook up with another audience member, but in the end, it only emphasises how unconvincing you are as a lead actor and how detached you are from the story.
For storytelling at its finest, you have to get back to a regular theatre and marvel at the unassuming craftsmanship of Chris Goode. The Adventures Of Wound Man And Shirley is a funny and moving tale of teenage sexual yearning, made special by Goode's combination of surreal conceit and immaculate narrative structure.
Shirley is a 14-year-old boy deeply in love with one of his classmates; Wound Man is an unlikely superhero, modelled on a 15th century medical engraving. His superpower is an extreme form of empathy which is capable of helping even Shirley through unrequited love, family tragedy and teenage angst. Goode's heartbreakingly romantic vision sends you home with a warm and rosy glow and the pleasure of a tender tale perfectly told.
One Thousand And One Nights, Royal Lyceum, until 3 September; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, King's Theatre, run ended; You Once Said Yes, Underbelly (Venue 61b), until 29 August; A Machine To See With, St George's West (Venue 157), until 28 August; The Adventures Of Wound Man And Shirley, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), until 29 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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