Uncompromising take on One Thousand and One Nights at 2011 EIF

This article is from 2011.

Ucompromising take on One Thousand and One Nights at 2011 EIF

One Thousand and One Nights rehearsal

Centrepiece theatre production of Edinburgh International Festival 2011

Watching rehearsals in a Moroccan palace, Mark Fisher finds a production of One Thousand and One Nights with a shockingly authentic flavour

It begins in classic once-upon-a-time style. 'A long, long time ago lived two kings who were brothers,' goes the opening line of One Thousand and One Nights. 'The elder, King Shahrayar, ruled India and Indochina. The younger, Shahzaman, ruled Samarkand.'

All these centuries later, it doesn't take much imagination to picture Shahrayar and Shahzaman standing in the Palais El Mokri. This stately home on the edge of the Fes medina – the city's old Arab quarter – is every bit the kind of place the kings would have hung out. True, it's a little dilapidated today, but the cool colonnades and archways, the beautiful tiled floors, the elaborate Islamic designs and the line of fountains in the courtyard are all suggestive of a fairytale medieval court.

Here in the grandest room, with its red stained-glass windows, mosaic wall tiles and a ceiling of golden starbursts, we find a troupe of actors deep in rehearsal. They are working on a staging of One Thousand and One Nights under the direction of Tim Supple, former artistic director of London's Young Vic. No ordinary staging, it is a production that brings together over 20 performers from countries including Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia in an attempt to reclaim the authentic flavour of these ancient stories. The product of years of research and eight weeks of rehearsal, it will be performed in three languages over two nights – or in one marathon six-hour session – as the centrepiece theatre production of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Heading into rehearsals, we find actors Mohamed Berikaa Ali and Hajar Garigaa sitting on a carpet in the centre of the room and having a furious row. You may not understand their Arabic tongue, but the intensity is clear. So too is the brutality of the tale. It's about a newly-wed husband who insists his wife should never look at another man. Madly in love with him, she agrees, but weakens her resolve when a shopkeeper offers her some beautiful material in return for a peck on the cheek. She accepts, but instead of kissing her, the shopkeeper bites a chunk out of her face. As if that wasn't indignity enough, her husband punishes her with a brutal flogging. This is only after he has been persuaded not to chop her in two and throw her in the Tigris River.

'There's got to be something so final, so decisive about that,' Supple tells Ali about the moment his character resolves to kill his wife. 'Don't do it quickly. Take time to build up the music. Take time to decide. And then take out the sword.'

It is uncompromising stuff. These stories in their original form are not the anodyne bedtime tales you remember from childhood. They are vicious, sexual, urgent and defiantly adult. 'What I love about the Nights is its surprising truthfulness,' says Supple. 'They're far more interesting, complex and truthful than we made them in the west in the 19th century.'

The framing story of the two kings is a case in point. You can imagine the younger brother, Shahzaman, wandering over to the balcony of the rehearsal room and looking down at the courtyard below. There he would see Shahryar's wife leading a procession of what he takes to be 20 female slaves, ten black and ten white. Except, in the words of this translation by Hanan Al-Shaykh, 'Shahzaman nearly cried out in surprise when he realised the ten black slave girls were in fact men, who stood with their penises erect like bayonets, their firm buttocks jutting out as though a cup and saucer might balance on them.'

If anything will upturn your preconceptions of the Middle East being a place of modesty, restraint and demureness, it is this. Only last year, a group of Islamist lawyers in Egypt called for the book to be banned, describing it as a call to 'vice and sin'. They were unsuccessful, but it shows the power of these folk stories many centuries after they were first set down in print. 'Very rarely are they pretty stories,' says Supple over dinner after the 11-hour rehearsal. 'They're usually combative and difficult.'

His purpose is not sensationalism for its own sake, but to show us a classic work of literature afresh. 'My personal pleasure is in the revelation of what I believe to be truly there but buried under cliché, diversion and adaptation,' he says, tucking into a Moroccan salad. 'If our presentation of One Thousand and One Nights is provocative, it's provocative simply because it tries to show what is there rather than join the long list of versions that have hidden what is there. I would never want to provoke for no reason. I yearn to be provocative for a reason and the reason here is to stir and prod people to see what is there and deal with it. We've censored it in the west, it's been censored in the east and it's been denied its bayonet penises. It's been denied the fact that Shahrazad has to fuck the king every night before she tells her stories. It's been turned into the kind of romantic, exotic fantasies that we grew a taste for in the west. The provocation is simply to awaken what it is.'

As well as upturning the clichés about One Thousand and One Nights, he wants to confront the prejudices the west has about the region as a whole. The Arab countries are as varied as any others, neither as exotic as the romantics would have us believe nor as repressive as the cynics would have it. 'There's a provocation in seeing the direct truth of who these performers are,' says Supple. 'I want to cut a straight line through the clichés about the Arab world. There are some tough truths that make that whole exotic cliché ridiculous. On the other hand, there are clichés about the religious fanaticism – that they can't act, dance or drink and all the women are in hijab – but you look at the guys and they're just people living lives.'

Playing the part of King Shahrayar is Assaad Bouab. He has the unenviable task of finding the humanity in a character whose reaction to his wife's infidelity is to kill her and her lover with a single sword stroke. After that he marries and kills a new virgin every night just so he won't be cuckolded again. The French/Moroccan actor says the sanitisation of the stories is not just a European phenomenon: the true version was a revelation to him as well. 'It was supposed to be something for kids,' he says, remembering his own childhood encounters with One Thousand and One Nights. 'I didn't realise how much we ignored about what it contained. It's strange how sometimes the world goes back and how free of mind people once were. They would listen to stories about sex, adultery and violence in a free way.'

The only woman who can stop Shahrayar in his tracks is Shahrazad, the vizier's daughter, played here by Houda Echouafni. To save her own life she tells him a story each night, leaving so many cliff-hangers that he has to keep postponing her death. 'The commander of the faithful is drinking wine and sleeping with different women – and there is no hint of there being any wrongness in that,' says Echouafni, who has mixed Egyptian and Moroccan parentage. 'I found it quite liberating, being an Arab and being a Muslim myself. Shahrayar is creating a law unto himself and it has nothing to do with religion, which is amazing.'

For Supple, whose equally multi-national version of A Midsummer Night's Dream played Edinburgh in 2007, these tales have a power that goes beyond sex and violence. What he wants to bring out – in a collection of 20 stories which have no trace of our old panto friends Ali Baba and Aladdin, both western additions – is a sense of the deep reasons for the work's status as a classic.

'The One Thousand and One Nights as it was in its oldest Arabic texts was a linked piece of work in which one person was telling the story to save her life, and who sets up other narrative frameworks in which other characters try to save their lives,' he says. 'You get this constant, labyrinthine movement from frame to frame. It has a unique structural contribution to world art and literature, which was copied by Voltaire, Borges and you could say films like Inception and The Matrix.

'The stories themselves have deep emotional truths. They are about power, fate, property, money, within what was an emerging social structure. How do men and women live together? What is the relationship between the ruler and the ruled? What are the relationships within families? I wouldn't say we have chosen the most true Nights but we have chosen a selection that attempts to be true to the core of the Nights and render it coherent and theatrical.'

One Thousand and One Nights, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000. Part 1: 23, 25, 30 Aug, 7pm; Part 2: 24, 26 Aug, 1 Sep, 7pm; Parts 1 & 2: 21, 27, 28, 31 Aug, 2 & 3 Sep, 2pm and 7pm, £10-£36.

One Thousand and One Nights

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