The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayam. National Multicultural Festival, March 14-15, 2001. Directed by Domenic Mico. Performed by Phil Mackenzie, with dancers, Veils of Baghdad and the Occidental Tourists, and musicians Jim Sharrock and Graeme Adler.
I guess the important thing about a "festival" is its inclusiveness.
The attempt to melt down the silver and gold of the old Multicultural Festival and the Canberra Festival, and remould them to fit a rectangular tent in Civic Square as a package to raise the tourist dollar, should mean the exclusion of Phil Mackenzie's dream of pretending to be a Persian 11th Century poet speaking the often execrable verse written by his 19th Century utterly Romantic neo-Gothic English translator, accompanied by excellent 21st Century Canberran belly dancers.
Probably the serious tourists wondered if their $8 was worth it, especially when the radio microphone echoed and whistled and the lighting left faces in the dark, and the one and one only dress rehearsal was obvious.
Yet, for our Festival, here was an oddity for which one can have some affection. The dancing was used to give the long set of verses some dramatic structure, some merely illustrating scenes but some, such as the scimitar dance and the dance of the black shadows, successfully illuminating the poet's philosophy. From a purely performance point of view, the professional quality of the dancers and musicians strengthened Mackenzies' mixed underplaying and overplaying of Omar al-Khayyami.
In Persian tradition, Omar was outshone 200 years later by the "Prince" of lyric poets, Mohammed Schems-Eddin Hafiz, who also praised wine and love. But Omar was a mathematician who lived at the time when Arabic philosophy invented the number zero, and in his verses one senses a kind of despair. The infinite universe seems reduced to nought and he will "Divorce old barren reason from my bed" and life becomes "nothing but a magic shadow show".
In the face of this, "fill me with that old familiar juice" he says, sadly, and - there being no higher force to save us from ourselves - he begs that "For all the sins that blacken Man, Man's forgiveness give and take." Sounds like a very modern message from the 11th Century for a modern multicultural society.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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