A new, well-timed production based on the Arabian Nights will remind audiences of the enduring power of storytellingby Michael Coveney / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Cutting edge drama: Hajar Graigaa in One Thousand and One Nights
One Thousand and One Nights Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 21st August-3rd September
After years of planning, British theatre director Tim Supple was finally ready to begin work this February on his production of One Thousand and One Nights, a six-hour, two-play edition of 20 stories from the source we know as the Arabian Nights.
Two dozen actors and musicians from all over the Arab world—Cairo, Baghdad, Ramallah, Palestine and Syria—were going to assemble for rehearsals in Egypt, in a Jesuit monastery in Alexandria. Then President Hosni Mubarak’s regime collapsed.
Supple and his collaborators relocated to Morocco, rehearsing instead in the El Mokri Palace in Fez, where the courtyards, colonnades and narrow, winding streets proved an unexpected bonus in revisiting the Arabian Nights. In August, following a June premiere in Toronto, the show will form the centrepiece of the Edinburgh International Festival’s drama programme.
The actors have wrestled with notions of where they should be and what they should be doing: making history at home, or staying with Supple to show the world that freedom and culture transcend local difficulty. Several performers have friends in prison. Others arrived having spent days and sleepless nights defying authority.
Supple and his creative team didn’t update the production to take the Arab Spring into account. The central concern of the relationships between men and women transcends this turbulence, he argues.
Yet the work itself changed in the light of those events, as happens with any great work of art.“This is not the first or last cycle of upheavals in those nations,” he says. “The Arabian Nights is a classic work that accommodates and reflects all the shifts in history. The stories are about the trials and challenges of social existence, but of course the passages about justice and power will have been heightened in our minds, and those of the audiences.”
The stories of One Thousand and One Nights are a series of devices to avoid death, recounted by the character we know as Shahrazad (sometimes Scheherezade), to appease and, as it happens, educate her jealous, murderous husband King Shahryar. Unravelling inside each other like a box of magical illusions, the stories investigate every aspect of social life, dealing in adultery, frustrated love, enforced marriage, slavery, power, sex and the law.
Shahrazad begins with the tale of a fisherman struggling for his life, which is spun into the story of his brother, a porter; the porter has a surprising encounter with three beautiful women and, in their house, meets three one-eyed dervishes, three mysterious merchants and two dogs. Shahrazad herself then re-enters that tale as one of the three women, so that in telling the story, she is also participating in it. This is the crux of One Thousand and One Nights: the narrator becomes the protagonist, and her actions begin to speak as loud as her words. From this framework, all the other stories emerge.
There are two creative impulses behind this project. In 2005, Supple went to India and Sri Lanka on a British Council grant and returned with an extraordinary subcontinental A Midsummer Night’s Dream, full of silks, saris and phallic root vegetables, and performed in a Babel of eight languages including Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Sanskrit (with a bit of English, too).
The second impulse is British theatre’s long simmering preoccupation with the Arabian Nights as a reassertion of the medium’s prime function of storytelling. Every story is told to save the life of Shahrazad, or the life of someone in her tale. Supple has turned to the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh—the first woman to publish a major new version of the tales—to provide the text, which will be delivered in a mixture of Arabic, English and French (with surtitles).
Not since Peter Brook’s tumultuous production of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata over 20 years ago has there been a comparable international undertaking, and there’s no doubt that Supple—who ran the Young Vic in London in the 1990s—is in some respects following in those footsteps.
Supple says he is “celebrating the differences between people and smashing the clichés as far as we can.” If there’s a message of One Thousand and One Nights, it is that life hangs by a thread, and that catastrophe is temporarily averted by the acknowledgement of our shared humanity in the consolations of art and fiction. In troubled times, we may have to settle for that.