24 August, 2011

One Thousand and One Nights at Festival 2011

Photo: Matthew Andrews
By Jane Compton

One of the highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival this year is the European premiere of One Thousand and One Nights – or Alf Layla wa-Layla in Arabic – at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. After witnessing his wife in an orgy with slaves, the despotic King Shahrayar embarks upon a mission to marry a virgin each night then behead her in the morning before she has the chance to dishonour him. But the grim cycle of executions is temporarily halted when he takes Shahrazad as his bride.

Unwilling to accept the fate that has been dealt to many women before her, this strong and resourceful heroine relies upon her intellect to stay alive, regaling her husband with fascinating stories to retain his passive interest. She concludes her nightly narratives with the promise that the next story will be even better, persuading King Shahrayar to postpone her death for one more day.

Director Tim Supple’s ambitious goal to create a sumptuous stage version of this famous work from ancient Arabic literature was given the go-ahead in 2009 when Dash Arts, the production company he runs with Josephine Burton, secured a commission from Luminato, the multidisciplinary arts festival held annually in Toronto where the show received its world premiere in June. This funding enabled Supple to begin the considerable research and preparation required for what would eventually become an epic six-hour, multilingual dramatisation performed in two parts.

The dialogue is in Arabic, French and English to reflect that the tales were first translated from Arabic to French in 1704 and then into English two years later. Supple travelled extensively across the Middle East including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Syria, holding workshops and auditions in major cities to find talented actors, musicians and dancers for his creative team. Rehearsals were moved from Egypt to Morocco following the start of the Egyptian uprising in January.

The historical origins of the Nights are obscure, but the tales are understood to be a living document in the sense that over the centuries numerous writers have contributed to a body of work that includes stories from India, Persia and across the great Arab empire. Supple had no interest in the sanitised western translations first produced in the eighteenth century which reinterpreted and reshaped the stories to make them suitable for children under the new guise of The Arabian Nights and which also added new stories from outside the Arabic version including The Seven Voyages of Sinbad and Aladdin and his Lamp.

Intent upon giving theatre audiences the opportunity to experience the deep and hidden riches of these classic tales as they appear in the oldest Arabic manuscripts, Supple called upon the translation skills of respected Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh to adapt 19 stories for the stage in a manner that reveals their sophistication and complexity. As Supple has said: “At their heart there’s a serious investigation into every aspect of social life: marriage, power, money, law, love, hate, parents and children. They’re graphic, startling, bleak, joyous and brutal, about sex, violence and human relations.”

One Thousand and One Nights

Part One
Tuesday 23, Thursday 25 and Tuesday 30 August, 7pm
Sunday 21, Saturday 27, Sunday 28 and Wednesday 31 August, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September, 2pm

Part Two
Sunday 21, Wednesday 24, Friday 26, Saturday 27, Sunday 28 and Wednesday 31 August, Thursday 1, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September, 7pm

**See both performances in one day on Sunday 21, Saturday 27, Sunday 28 and Wednesday 31 August, and Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September**

**Book for both parts on any day in the same transaction and receive 10% off each ticket**

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August – 4 September. Browse and book online at eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.

This article has also been published on stv.tv which features reviews, previews and features from this year's Festival.

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