27 August, 2011

Review: One Thousand and One Nights - Part One

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
By Jane Compton

One Thousand and One Nights, known as Alf Layla wa-Layla in Arabic, is currently playing to packed audiences in its European debut at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. This epic six hour, two part dramatisation adapted from ancient Arabic manuscripts differs from The Arabian Nights – an anodyne version created by western translators which removed adult themes and added new stories and characters including Aladdin and Sinbad.

After killing his adulterous wife, King Shahrayar decides the only way to prevent a spouse’s infidelity is to marry a virgin each night and then behead her the following morning. Horrified that so many young women are dying, the young Shahrazad bravely volunteers to wed the king believing she can convince him to stop these executions.

Her strategy is to narrate stories each night that end on a cliff-hanger, meaning that if her husband wants to know more he will have to let her live for one more day. It is these folk tales, gathered from India, Persia and the Arab Empire that are brought to life on stage, touching upon just about every aspect of human behaviour.

Characters become enraged with fits of jealousy, surrender to lust, cower in fear, writhe in agony, torture others and self-mutilate, but at the heart of these stories there are valuable lessons to be learned. For example to importance of forgiveness and the need to show kindness to those around you, or the tale of The Three Apples that shows it is unwise to act rashly on the basis of flimsy insubstantial evidence.

The supernatural is a recurring theme and the fact that beings from parallel realms can interact with humans is universally accepted. Spirits also share similarities with mankind for instance the Jinni in The Persian Prince who is married with children yet keeps a mortal mistress.

Gender relations are also explored as women speak candidly about their enjoyment sex with graphic on stage portrayals of intercourse, most notably an orgy scene. The story of The Porter and the Three Ladies also makes it clear that a woman can live contentedly without a man in patriarchal society and even earn great wealth through her own business ventures.

Throughout this production, audiences receive unique glimpses of Arab culture from a bygone age which differs greatly from contemporary western perceptions. Director Tim Supple’s cast of nineteen men and women are surely among the hardest working actors at The Edinburgh International Festival this year. Selected following a rigorous audition process held in locations across the Arabic-speaking world, the actors fully immerse themselves into each role they play over the course of three hours with dialogue moving effortlessly between Arabic, French and English.

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.

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