This is a joy. It is a vast-hearted, gleeful riot of story, music, dance, wonderment and cake. It is a cosy transport from soulless metropolis to vibrant cosmopolis. It is an immersion into the twinned arts of memory and narration. It is a close encounter with profoundly mythical characters, survivors from another world, at once real and familiar to the present, but also fantastical, impossible in their courage.
Why the uncritical gushing? Well, I took my mum and she loved it, and I think that makes it worthy of a little unconditional praise.
This production is Melbourne playwright Therese Radic’s free adaptation of Arnold Zable’s much-loved novel of the same name, Café Scheherazade. Arnold Zable is of course a favourite of mums around the country, but even so this seems an uncommonly beautiful work.
It is based on the history of the real Café Scheherazade, the Ackland Street avant garde of Melbourne’s café culture, which, through the 60s and 70s, was a meeting place for refugees, artists, politicians and bohemians of all sorts. The play follows a young Journalist, Martin (Jacob Allen), who is drawn back to the café again and again to hear the wonderful stories of Avram and Masha (Jim Daly and Marta Kaczmarek), the café proprietors, and Yossel, Laizer and Zalman, the regulars (Bruce Kerr, Richard Bligh, George Werther).
When playwrights and directors base their work on a novel, they’re often wary of calling it an “adaptation”, fearing that this description requires of them a high degree of literal fidelity. So, Radic writes in the program:
“Café Scheherazade, the play, is not an adaptation of Arnold Zable’s best selling novel of the same name […] An adaptation tries to remain faithful to the original work, but in this riff on Arnold’s themes of war and flight – though the fundamental facts from the novel remain, as do the characters – the language of the stage takes over and submerged ideas suggested in the novel are brought into a different light.”
The implication is that this play is not faithful to the original work, which is absurd. In every way that matters, it is. Radic, like others before her, makes it sound as though “adaptation” implies nothing more than “abridged reading”. Happily, however, she has hit on exactly what a good adaptation should be: neither a literal re-staging of the novel, nor only an assemblage of images inspired by the novel. It should be a work that gets at the kernel—the essence—of the original, but is still, in its parts and design, a solid play in its own right.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the script is the sense of unity and internal order which it gives to its materials. This is especially important when the director is an artist as, um, ebullient, as Bagryana Popov. Between Zable’s epic sprawl and Popov’s dionysian excess, there is an impressively coherent playtext.
It works a fascinating triangulation between Memory, the Café Sheherazade and Australia. These three are all given as places of refuge; but in a way all three are also presented as unreal or otherworldly, as though refuge itself implied unreality, implied a place outside of reality, a limbo between life and death. This notion of Australia as a place outside of the world may not sound original, but what seemed new and exciting, to me at least, was the sense that this suspension opened untold creative possibilities, seen for instance in the way that, in Sheherazade, Holocaust survival stories were transformed into daring and adventurous voyages of discovery.
This provides good ground for Popov’s distinctive directorial style, her frenetic composite of physical/experimental theatre, dance and live music. Her volatile method and peculiar impatience with ponderousness and maudlin sentiment are great advantages here.
The sometimes-difficult fortyfivedownstairs space is mastered and made intimate, the klezmer rhythms of the live music (provided by Ernie Gruner on violin and Justin Marshall on accordion) marry well with the rapid pace, and the performances all glow with a mythical larger-than-life-ness. The recollected romance between Masha and Avram produces some especially moving performances.
Image by Jeff Busby