Review: Leeds Lit Fest: Adverse Camber’s The Shahnameh

Of the events I attended during the first Leeds Literature Festival, this humble, forty-five minute family show was, somewhat surprisingly, the highlight, and its richness deserves an article on its own.

As regular readers of my reviews will know is certainly not my custom, I actually arrived early to this show.  The extremely bare stage had a mere two chairs – one for the sole actress, Xanthe Gresham Knight, and one for the show’s brilliant multi-instrumentalist, Arash Moradi.  Around the latter’s chair are scattered, almost nonchalantly, shurangiz, dafs, and setars. Xanthe Gresham Knight enters the stage (really, a floor for playing) before the show to chat informally with the children in the audience.  She is wearing a beautiful costume, predominantly red, of rich tassel, silk and embroidery. On the back wall of the stage, between two curtains, is projected a beautiful example of Islamic geometrical artwork. Throughout the show, the projections progress through a number of exceptionally beautiful images taken from (presumably medieval) manuscripts of the Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.

All photographs provided by Adverse Camber.

A few words about the text before I review the show itself. The Shahnameh is an epic poem by the Iranian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi (c. 940–1020) which runs to some 50,000 lines of couplets, a single line of which in Farsi poetry of the period is about double the length of the English pentameter (at twenty-two syllables), which means that the poem is more like 100,000 lines of English in length.  In other words, it is twice the length of the Odyssey and Iliad put together – but is still probably shorter than Proust – and covers a historical period beginning with the creation of time and space, mythical prehistory, and Iranian history up to the decline of Zoroastrianism with the Arab Conquest of Iran in the seventh century, whereon Islam displaces the earlier religion.

This has fascinating results for the religious imagination of the poem, and readers wanting to know more about this can read one of a number of translations into English (though several abridge the huge work, and cut out the religious framework of the beginning), or read Dick Davis’ article ‘Religion in the Shahnameh’, which was published in the journal Iranian Studies in 2015. If interested readers have trouble finding it, then they can get in touch with me and I shall happily send a copy to them. Dick Davis is also a distinguished poet who has done an equally distinguished, though abridged, translation of the Shahnameh, along with other significant translations from Farsi.

On to the story and start of the show. There is the sound of birds and crickets (which Gresham Knight encourages the children to participate in imitating; all the show’s sound effects are created by her, Moradi, and the audience). It is the beginning of time.  All is still and quiet.  Everything seems perfect.  However, Evil is soon born. The first Shah (Farsi for ‘King’; thus ‘Shahnameh’ is the ‘book of kings’) prays to and praises ‘the jewellery of heaven’ – the sun and other stars, and God’s great artwork of creation is appreciated. This symphony of prayer gives way to ‘the shouts and farts of demons’, and we are soon in a scene in which the chief demon, Ariman, gallops his horse to the chant,

‘Night and day,

Night and day,’

which Gresham Knight gives in English and Farsi (‘shab-o-roz, roz-o-shab’:♪♪♩|♪♪♩), in which language the two words have a sonority suggestive of the horse’s gallop which is not really there in English.  Fascinatingly, the children are encouraged to – and do – sing and stamp along, whilst Arash Moradi plays traditional Persian melodies in metres quite far from the duple or triple time of western music – and the children sing along without trouble, where I am tripped up by the extra, unexpected beat. It is an educational show which has children clapping and chanting along to Ferdowsi’s Farsi, whilst accompanied by music on traditional Persian instruments and in traditional Persian modes!

Back to the story – the demons offer the Shah a gift; they speak a remarkable unintelligible whisper in a high, rapid voice. The demons like to play with language, and from this early game comes all languages – Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew, ‘perhaps even English’, says Gresham Knight to the enraptured children (and adults) in the audience.

Our first hero (the 50,000 lines of the poem cover countless generations and numerous heroes) is Zahn – a rake, but one who soon settles down to marry. He has a white-haired child, Zal, who he concludes is a demon and whom he decides therefore to abandon. He gives the child to a servant, saying, effectively, ‘do whatever you like with it; just get it away from me’. It is amazing how the individual elements of old stories are transmitted across cultures – Shakespeare, in perfect ignorance of the Shahnameh, was to stage a king with virtually the exact same attitude in The Winter’s Tale some six- or seven-hundred years later. Like Shakespeare’s servant Antigonus in that play, Ferdowsi’s servant wants to serve ‘the flame of goodness’, and so leaves the baby in the mountains, where it is saved from death and raised into life not by a kindly Shepherd (as in Shakespeare), but by The Simorgh, a mystical bird which is the Iranian equivalent of Greece’s Phoenix and is particularly revered in Iranian mythology and folk tale.

Zahn, now old, is – like Shakespeare’s King Leontes – also now repentant. He sees that there is no evil in the colour of hair, and his heart breaks in his contrition. He goes on a journey in order to find, if not his abandoned child, then at least his fate. At this point Gresham Knight goes into the audience as Zahn, asking audience members if they have seen his son. Why yes, an audience member returns, he was seen around the mountains! Finding his son with the Simorgh, Zahn’s heart ‘is like a paradise garden’ as the Simorgh returns his son. But! the moment of rejoicing is only brief: like a typical interfering parent, Zahn is soon hassling Zal to get married. The story then pursues his love affair with the daughter of the neighbouring enemy king (again, one thinks of a famous play by Shakespeare). Here Zal is played by a precocious young boy from the audience, and the beloved, Rudabeh, is played by an equally delightful girl – two storytellers or thespians in the making!

Zal and Rudabeh fall in love in the story, charmingly, from each other’s descriptions. When they meet, it is a Rapunzel moment: Zal has to climb up Rudabeh’s long – and stout! – hair in order to see her in the chamber in which she has been locked away. He succeeds, night passes, and with the coming of morning ‘the sun taps its rosy fingers on the window’ – an uncannily Homeric introduction to the next episode of the poem, which concerns Zal’s winning over of Rudabeh’s father, over an interesting game of riddles in rhyming couplets (none of which I had the wit to solve). The rest of the show concerns the adventures of Zal and Rudabeh’s son, Rustam, which mainly involve his relationship with his preternaturally fast and strong horse Rakhsh. Though this didn’t excite my imagination or my interest as much as those parts to do with mythic pre-history and the unions of familial relationships, it was entertaining enough, and Rustam’s confrontation with the archdemon Ariman is hugely enjoyable. The show comes to a beautiful conclusion as Gresham Knight tells us that everyone who hears the story keeps a pearl under their tongue which, when we retell a part of the tale, will melt and fill our bones with light. After this review, I hope to have a healthy glow!

This was, of course, not the whole Shahnameh – just a few episodes – and what we do get is not Ferdowsi’s, but Ferdowsi’s and Gresham Knight’s Shahnameh. As she says in the notes to the beautifully produced and (amazingly) free programme, ‘The Shahnameh has elements of nationalism which, being a pacifist, I’ve tried to downplay. I’ve also augmented the feminine where possible, while trying to maintain the full-blooded warrior energy that gives the stories such kick’. Though this does raise questions of whether the poem really is nationalist or patriotic, and whether nationalism necessarily precludes pacifism (one recalls Twelfth Night: ‘words have grown so false I am loth to prove reason with them’), what is relevant here is Gresham Knight’s creativity and sensitivity in appropriating and adapting the stories: they both become hers and remain Ferdowsi’s, and it is a wonderful result. The show is to be praised for so brilliantly – and briefly – combining the educational, inspirational, and imaginative. If only more of children’s early education could resemble this forty-five minutes!

I should also comment on the sensitive musical provision by Arash Moradi, which was done with a light but effective touch – a judicious approach which brought a wonderful atmosphere to Gresham Knight’s storytelling. Since I am (alas) no expert in Persian music, I will let the programme notes speak in my place: ‘Arash works with the modes of Persian classical, Kurdish maqam, and Sufi music, the qualities of the story, and the style of each instrument, as well as themes known to be associated with characters’. I shall enjoy listening to his CD, which I was happy to purchase after the show, and then will, I am sure, derive great pleasure from looking into his father’s (Ali Akbar Moradi’s) distinguished work in ‘collecting, learning, and recording 72 original and sacred maqams so that contemporary musicians could improvise and create new compositions rooted in traditional culture’.

Many thanks go to Xanthe Gresham Knight, Arash Moradi, Adverse Camber, and of course Leeds Literature Festival and The Carriageworks for this great show. I’ll be very happily be listening to the several Adverse Camber CDs I bought in the coming days, and looking out for future shows.


Charles Eager

Charles writes on classical music and opera.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

Do you have a story to tell?
We want to hear your stories and help you share them.