'Hakawatis' review — a storytelling sisterhood reshape Scheherazade's 1001 Nights

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

“Hakawati” means storyteller in Arabic, and stories are the reason for being of Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights, playwright Hannah Khalil’s reimagining of the way in which Scheherazade sourced her stories for 1001 Nights.

A co-production between Shakespeare’s Globe, where it is playing in repertory in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and Tamasha, the director Pooja Ghai’s production catches something of the zeitgeist. In its insistence on the necessity of women to foreground their experience, the play has thematic echoes of the new Sarah Polley film Women Talking, since that is precisely what is on offer here.

The set-up is immediately intriguing: five women — each given a specific moniker — are gathered in the sensuously candlelit antechamber of a palace belonging to a murderous (and unnamed) king. What’s needed are stories to “tickle his turban”, we’re told, “caress his caftan”. These tales will be passed forward to Scheherazade so as to maintain a narrative supply that will save lives.

At first, the mood is one of excitement. Fatah the Young (Alaa Habib), the newest recruit, is all virginal ignorance. She’s ready for a sexual initiation whilst unaware that her wedding night may also mark her death. Innocence confronts experience as Fatah is informed by the older quartet as to some the finer, more feral points of passion. There’s a difference between desire and deceit, deeply felt longing and the immediacy of lust.

Akila the Writer (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, a Globe regular of late) is the architect of a scheme whose ability to pile fable upon fable put me in mind, at times, of a risqué minor-key variant on the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods.

And far more carnally explicit, too: barely has the evening begun before we hear about the mechanics of intercourse and fellatio involving a ruler who, apparently, “is not just a cock”. You could have fooled me, since he doesn’t seem in this context to be much else.

We hear the admonitory tale of a sparrow marked out by arrogance and of a puppy sacrificed on the altar of sex. The tone shifts from mutually supportive to competitive and even angry, as who can blame these speakers? There’s scant room for the sisterhood amidst a landscape where women exist to be slept with and then killed.

“Better never to have been born,” one of the women muses in a remark reminiscent of King Lear. These women exist as prey to a man of Lear-like dimensions coupled with an apparent sexual appetite that would put Harvey Weinstein to shame. Barrenness, too, comes to seem the best available option. After all, no more children means no more “bastard dictators”.

Irreverence gives way to rancour and back again, along with much theorising: the women point to the existence of only seven stories (a long-held narrative principle), all of which have been told. And whilst stories are “safe” antidotes to the slaughterhouse of the world at large, they can also be censored, amended, and coarsened at will. Actors, meanwhile, exist within this landscape to make stories better. “Only if they’re good,” comes the swift, inevitably “meta” rejoinder, which gets a laugh from the house.

An initial playfulness turns indulgent, as the women start to seem pawns within some larger point at the cost of their own individuality. Still, Khalil, twice represented at this address just now between this show and the children’s entertainment The Fir Tree, finds a cunning way to end the overlong proceedings — it’s time for Scheherazade to have her say, so off the women go — and she couldn’t ask for a more inviting production.

The actresses skilfully mark out their place on a spectrum of characters seasoned (or maybe not) in male wiles, whether it’s Wahida the Dancer (Houda Echouafni) preparing a final dance in the manner of Salome or Zuya the Warrior (Laura Hanna), weapon at the ready. What happens next? The play deliberately doesn’t say, allowing audiences to continue the storytelling in their own heads – the conclusion is ours to write for ourselves.

Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights is at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse through 14 January. Book Hakawatis tickets on London Theatre.

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