|Photo: Eoin Carey|
Tim Supple’s One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla wa-Layla), a two-part saga through layer upon layer of stories from across the Arab world, was a marvel to behold. With over five hours of skilfully interwoven stories creating a labyrinthine web, the performance was a feat of skill and endurance by the stunningly effective cast.
I saw both parts in the same day in an effort (however pathetic) to understand how demanding such a long and intricate performance might be for the nineteen strong cast and six-piece musical ensemble. Time and exertion seemed inconsequential to both the actors and myself as they eagerly jumped between characters and costumes, finding depth and emotion wherever they landed and effortlessly mesmerising the audience.
The hypnotic nature of the narrative helps make more believable the central plot. King Shahrayar’s obsessive quest to bed a different virgin every night and kill her the next day is overcome by the enthralling character of Shahrazad, who tells him such compelling stories with nightly cliff-hangers, that he cannot help but postpone her death sentence. This complex switching between stories and characters pleasantly cascaded over the audience, ensuring we were as enthralled by the storytelling as the King, and thus the lengthy performance managed both to retain my attention and to entertain.
The narrative and acting were matched with complex staging that managed to seamlessly transform between scenes and locations. The cast's graceful and often erotic movement sequences were supported by clever props and versatile and inventive costume changes. The direction had a beautiful mix of tongue-in-cheek humour and self-awareness, eroticism, and powerful emotional undercurrents, as the stories moved from horrific back-stabbings and tearful monologues to hilarious slapstick comedy routines and sensual dances.
The use of sumptuous fabrics and heavy wooden doors as a backdrop, lit with a rich red and blue lighting scheme, ensured the performance transported the audience out of their seats in the Lyceum and into the streets, bazaars and palaces of the Middle East and Asia. The stories and feelings they evoked in both the actors and audience were timeless, and this was sustained by the agelessness of the performance. Intermingling Arabic, French and English, puns and innuendos, traditional and modern costumes, one was never quite sure if this was set in a modern day Egyptian bazaar or a long-forgotten Ottoman harem.
Watching Parts 1 and 2 on the same day ensured I enjoyed Alf Layla wa-Layla in all its theatrical glory, with my attention held through the entire performance. I eagerly awaited the next instalment through each 15 minutes interval and the two hour break between parts and at the end felt profoundly sad that the performance was over.
Supple’s two-year long casting process was entirely justified by his beguiling ensemble of actors, who were a delight and an honour to watch, This performance truly captured the feel of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival by showcasing not only the best stories but also the best talents from the Arabic speaking world with an immersive and entrancing experience that was my personal highlight of this year’s festival season.
One Thousand and One Nights closes at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on Saturday 3 September. Part 1 will be performed at 2pm, followed by Part 2 at 7pm.
Book now at eif.co.uk/1001
The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August – 4 September. Browse and book online at eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.