Sydney Festival Review: Hakawati reminds us why it’s important to switch off technology & engage with people (Through Jan 21)

The term “Hakawati” may not mean a lot to people today. In fact, you’d probably be forgiven for thinking it was something Japanese. Hakawati actually means the art of storytelling in the Arabic tradition where story time is combined with the breaking of bread or sharing of food. It’s a wonderful concept and has now inspired a stage show, brought to us by the National Theatre of Parramatta, having its world premiere as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival.

This show is being staged in the private dining room of the El-Phoenician restaurant on Church Street in Parramatta. It is here that the audience sits down at a very long table, as if they were at a wedding. They then share a delicious four-course Lebanese meal of breads and dips, falafel, sambousek and chicken skewers with potato coriander before finishing off the proceedings with a strong, Lebanese coffee and a sweet baklava with fresh fruit.

The table had large wooden chairs elevated at the two heads. This is where the four storytellers of the night would come to deliver their complex tales of heroism, tragedy and familial clashes between generations and stories boasting complex emotions and layers. The Hakawati are traditionally rather cheeky so expect a few segues, jokes and some smoke and mirrors. This show also has lot of Australian references (to local suburbs like Kellyville, Granville and Auburn), local lingo (like “bro”) and stories that straddle the lines between being faithful to tradition while also navigating the waters of contemporary Australia.

Veteran Australian actress, Sandy Gore begins the narratives with a tale about a third son named Kareem and sometimes Kevin. This is a boy who is a pop tragic and someone who considers Kylie Minogue his fairy godmother. This story also uses stills from Moulin Rouge! and other pictures as well as the Minogue and Nick Cave duet “Wild Roses” to look at the topic of sexuality. It was an interesting way of tackling subject matter that could have been quite serious.

The second story was delivered by the effervescent and confident, Olivia Rose. She delivered a story about a cursed woman who had a bakery in Auburn. It also included some irreverent references to the Kardashians and a swipe at priests. The third tale was about a kid named Ali (whose surname may have been “Baba” and was told by Dorje Michael Swallow). Ali starts his own motorcycle gang called “The Thieves.” It’s basically a group of old bikers from North Parramatta who look like members of ZZ Top. The story also managed to link together the characters from the previous stories.

The final narrative of the night was delivered by Sal Sharah along with his fellow cast mates. This was a cautionary tale where the audience were warned to careful about what you wished for. By the time this rolled around the food and drinks had all been consumed and we’d had a pleasant evening getting to know the neighbours sitting around us. It also ended with a lovely surprise that was really the cherry on top for the evening and courtesy of Michael Stone and Emma Macpherson. To say anything more would ruin it.

The world needs more examples like the show, Hakawati. This night proved that it’s important for people to take a step away from being busy and distracted by technology and to sit and listen and get to know your neighbours. It is great to engage in some age-old customs that also felt relevant to Western Sydney and a fresh concept in terms of where theatre is concerned. The night offered some genuine opportunities to eat, drink, be merry and engage in ideas that were ultimately intriguing little bundles of food for thought.

Hakawati continues at the El-Phoenician in Parramatta during Sydney Festival, until January 21.