In the web of the microcosm

Jonathan Marshall

Rob Meldrum, David Michel, Odette Joannidis, <BR />Josephine Keen, Arabian Night”></p>
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Josephine Keen, Arabian Night

Like much new German writing, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Arabian Night resembles a prose poem or instruction text more than a conventional playscript. Actions are related to the audience by characters who perform them, as are settings and scenographic details. This serves Schimmelpfennig and director Chris Bendall well in creating a dreamlike atmosphere as the characters go about their lives in distracted fashion, imbuing everything with the sense that this might be a seductive, poetic illusion.

This also presents Bendall with the challenge of animating what is essentially a series of inter-cutting monologues. Director and performers skirt such performative tautologies as having the actor begin to run while saying: “I began to run.” Performance is rather gently embodied through minimal movement, easy posture and well supported voice.

The relationship between design, vocal work, Kelly Ryall’s lovely soundscape and the performance is slight, but on fortyfivedownstairs’ intimate stage, this matters little. Bendall is most adept at manipulating space and rhythm. The movement is shaped according to 2 main patterns. The first is a whorl about the iron post that permanently occupies the centre in this venue, becoming both a resting place and a pivot about which the increasingly disorientated characters spin. The second is a series of left/right corridors parallel to the seating, which turn the characters’ musings and personal journeys into something akin to slats glancing off each other on a venetian blind.

Although exquisite to experience, the dominant motifs of Schimmelpfennig’s script are not especially sophisticated or novel. The tale is set, for example, within a block of flats, constructed as a village unto itself or a microcosmic city, with its inhabitants coming close to each other but never really touching. As in the films of Altman and Tarantino (as well as much contemporary fiction), the play draws a web of connections between disparate figures, with the overlap of their lives producing an inter-woven narrative. This becomes the poetic motif in Schimmelpfennig’s work, as the surreal link between these characters is eventually revealed to be their having fallen into the dreams of the central protagonist, Francizka (Josephine Keen). She is cursed to forget her life nightly as she falls into slumber and to bring misfortune to all who kiss her.

Schimmelpfennig also employs the motif of the long, hot night as a catalyst for change and unusual behaviour, an idea which recurs in many plays, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to the 2002 fortyfivedownstairs production Sailing on a Sea of Tears (also set in a European apartment block). Schimmelpfennig skilfully uses this familiar concept to introduce a metaphoric interplay between desert and river dreamscapes. The water supply has stopped on Francizka’s floor, where the building attendant and others alternately experience dry, sandy winds or the frightening yet euphoric sensation of water coursing through the walls.

Arabian Night is a highly evocative production which, despite initial appearances, relies upon its performative realisation to render this beautiful if somewhat derivative text as something more distinctive than a mere theatrical sketch. In this sense, [email protected]’s staging represents a triumph for Bendall and the actors, particularly Josephine Keen as Francizka and stalwart Robert Meldrum as the attendant.

[email protected], Arabian Night, writer Roland Schimmelpfennig, translation David Tushingham, director Chris Bendall, performers Josephine Keen, Robert Meldrum, David Michel, Odette Joannidis, Joshua Hewitt, sound Kelly Ryall, lighting Marco Respondeck, design Danielle Harrison; fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, Feb 10-22

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 39

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004