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FringeReview UK 2022

Hakawatis Women of the Arabian Nights

Wanamaker Globe in Association with Tamasha

Genre: Adaptation, Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Feminist Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Storytelling, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Wanamaker Globe, Shakespeare’s Globe


Low Down

Musicians: Composer & Sound Designer Kareem Samara, Percussion Walid Zaido, Violin Ayman Asfour

Designed by Rosa Maggiora, Assistant Designer Maariyah Sharjil, Movement Director & Intimacy Director Jess Tucker Boyd, Assistant Director Layla Madenat. Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown for RC Annie Ltd.

Costume Supervisor Sabia Smith, Globe Associate – Text Giles Block, Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Seasonal Voice Coach Katherine Heath, Candle Consultant Matt Haskins. Casting Becky Paris.

Till January 14th


A sly tale’s best for winter. There’s a superbly theatrical logic in framing the framer in Hannah Khalil’s Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights, directed by Pooja Ghai at the Globe in association with Tamasha. The classic device of Scheherazade curating the 1001 tales is here bracketed wittily itself.

Lounging in a deceptive calm of the Wanamaker’s candlelight, Khalil’s five young women emerge as life-savers. As Hakawatis, they’re saving themselves and Scheherazade, offstage plying the murderous sultan with yet more stories. She needs feeds.

These young women provide them smuggled back through a food hatch, not without critical feedback. “He’s not just a cock,” the famed storyteller’s upbraiding gets short shrift from her collaborators, chiefly Globe regular Nadi Kemp-Sayfi’s Akila the Writer providing a shaft of authorial distance and pride punctured by events. They’re scandalised at being told to provide sanitised fare.

One might add, as the rhythmic imaginings of their fates overwhelm the young women at the start, that the sultan’s certainly a prick of the first order. Nothing takes away the sheer misogyny of the framing device, except, perhaps sheer relief at being spared.

Even before this, Fatah the Young (Alaa Habib, with a winning mix of terror and preppy anger) naively expresses outrage as she’s told that Scheherazade has to vary the tale and not merely recite the words on the page – immediate events, hearers, languages and politics inflecting every oral transmission the tales undertook. Khalil constantly manifests the techniques of storytelling as part of the skillset learned by the young Fatah, whose terror needs keeping at bay and who tells the simplest moral tale about fate and dreams. To prove this the Tale of the Fisherman, a complex tale-with-a-tale involving a jinni is instructed to be improvised every night by the women, Akila taking the lead.

We begin as sixteen-year-old Fatah has to hear her shared fate, having no clue, we’re slowly drawn into the characters of each so their stories match their talents, desires, frustrations, furies, above all wit.

So joining Fatah and Akila are other archetypes: Houda Echouafni’s Wadiha the Dancer (with a late tale of intergenerational liberation and always sashaying surprises), Laura Hanna’s fight-or-flight-mode Zuya the Warrior (interestingly widowed, with revenge animal stories), and Roann McCloskey who as wittily disinhibited Naha the Wise – paradoxically tells the most uproarious tale of all. Involving a massage room, an orgasm and accidentally squashed puppy, it spins out fantastical survival mechanisms rather too close to a wedding night and summary execution. Happily survival mechanisms triumph.

What’s not clear in the production is how this quintet are in on Scheherazade’s first night, then fifth, fiftieth, hundredth, five hundred and finally a thousand. At that point their tale dovetails with Scheherazade’s dried fund of stories. There’s undigested but important directions in the text then that the Wanamaker in its inviting layout simply can’t accommodate, unless someone were to announce the nights in Brecht-mode.

Rosa Maggiora’s set though is a delight of clutter. The upstage wall is stonework with door and bleak window, the room spread with the business of living and sleeping, where theatre business involves pumicing bare feet, eating and sprawling to the accompaniment of blown-out candles at the end of stories.

These tales are long, and at two-hours-fifteen with interval our attention’s held by the sheer presence of the actors and Khalil’s intercutting as well as Musicians: composer and sound designer Kareem Samara with a memorable hypnotically repeated theme, Walid Zaido on percussion and Ayman Asfour on violin. It’s a beguiling mix of theatre and recent developments in storytelling, popular in Amsterdam and elsewhere.

Indeed there’s neat digs at storytelling theory and layering as the women themselves wax satirical, painfully aware and sophisticated in just such an air of cultural knowingness. No problems there, though again it needs bringing out more dramatically than in candle-passing, and something unique and appealing in this production would be lost.

In the same spirit Khalil notes she’s not written this unaided, even with the much-varied 1001 Nights to select from. There’s contributions from Hanan al-Shaykh, Suhayla El-Bushra, and Sara Shaarawi, with translations by Hassan Abdulrazzak. Much can be restored – both from originals and despite western orientalism, toning down or with Richard Burton “some old white guy” exaggerating the erotic; nevertheless a hallmark of these tales.

With the inevitable limits on dramatising this genre, Khalil’s take is original, bawdy, exploratory, seductive and elegiac in equal measure. Necessarily a hybrid it holds you appropriately spellbound. Something of a Faberge egg, continually hatching.