Storytelling and a four-course feast come together in National Theatre of Parramatta's celebration of the tradition of Arabic storytelling
Some of my most memorable meals have been enjoyed in the Middle East. I shared iftar with a Palestinian family in Ramallah on the West Bank, and was an unlikely guest at a Kurdish wedding in the Turkish city of Van. In Iraqi Kurdistan, a politician-turned-aid worker put our meal on his tab even though he didn’t have to. The next night, a couple of guys I’d become friendly with, and who were showing me around, did the same.
These experiences were characterised not only by the sheer volume of food consumed, but also by the volubility of my hosts: they were meals at which it was difficult to eat because there was so much conversation going on.
Hakawati belongs to this tradition: hospitality infused with, and animated by, talk. If it suffers at all, it is from formality: it suffers, in a way, from being theatre.
Like the meal it punctuates, the show consists of four parts – or courses, as it were – each of which is essentially a monologue advancing and shedding light on the same story. (“Hakawati” is an Arabic word meaning “teller of tales”.) The four-sided story in question is that of an Arab-Australian family caught – where else? – between the old world and the new; between tradition and modernity; between the myths and folktales of the One Thousand and One Nights, and those of pop culture and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
It’s a tale that belongs to the tradition of postcolonial magic realism: think Salman Rushdie, or, to a lesser extent, Zadie Smith. It’s not as revelatory as it perhaps likes to think – this is well-trodden territory by now – but the telling of it is never less than charming. Sandy Gore opens the proceedings with zest, flippant and imperious at the same time. (I kept thinking of The Incredibles’ Edna Mode.) Dorje Michael Swallow is wry and knowing, and Sal Sharah even more so. (His calming presence is good for the digestion.)
It’s perhaps unfair to single out Olivia Rose when everyone in the production deserves praise, but she really is the standout here. A master of the witty, editorialising aside, if not necessarily of the art of the impression (I mistook her Kim Kardashian for Jackie Kennedy at first), her performance is marked by its rapid, dervish-like delivery and its sense of the absurd.
It’s only a shame that these excellent performances take place between courses rather than during and around them; surely that would be more in keeping with the central concept, that timeless combination of storytelling and bread-breaking. (I should point out that the courses in question are excellent. The team at El Phoenician knows its stuff.) It’s this structural rigidity that marks the piece out as theatre rather than as storytelling per se.
Sydney is hardly a stranger to the latter these days: the city isn’t exactly lacking storytelling nights. Story Club, Fabulous Monster and others tend to be freewheeling lucky-dips – not unlike dinner party conversations, as it happens – as likely to disappoint as not. What we get in Hakawati is a simulacrum of such events.
This is not so much a criticism of the show as a point about the tensions that exist between it and the mode it’s trying to replicate. There’s a lot to like about it. But it’s not quite as memorable or meandering a meal as those that doubtless inspired it.
The Hakawati is part of Sydney Festival 2017.