Arabian Nights director Dominic Cooke speaks to Saadeya Shamsuddin about revisiting the ancient Eastern epic in a post 9/11 era and the need for more Muslim playwrights.
The magic and power of storytelling lives on. Like Queen Shahrazad who bewitched King Shahrayar, night after night with her magical tales, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s much anticipated production of Arabian Nights combines all the elements of an epic story that captivates its audience.
Adapted and directed by Dominic Cooke, artistic director of London’s Royal Court which recently swept the board at the prestigious Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the play features an ensemble cast of 18 actors, puppetry, song and dance to retell ancient stories of the East. Cooke originally staged the play at London’s Young Vic in 1998 and its success led to a UK tour and shows in New York; however he feels the play holds a particularly important resonance for audiences today. “It’s really interesting coming back to Arabian Nights now because the last time we did it was in 2000. Post-9/11 the West’s relationship to Islam and Islamic culture and history has changed beyond belief. Engaging with a text concerning the world of early Arab society at this point in history is a very different feeling to 10 years ago; it’s more political,” he says, explaining why he decided to revive the play 10 years after it was first staged.
“Today, there’s a whole generation of kids who when they hear the word ‘Baghdad’ think of war. Many don’t know that whilst in Europe we were still really primitive, there was a very sophisticated, very pluralistic civilisation operating in that part of the world where these stories have come from,” he observes. “I was really interested in going back to that idea, because it does mean something different. There’s a line in Es-Sindibad (one of the tales in the play) ‘I return to Baghdad, City of Peace’ which is significant in a time where a whole generation of children associate a lot of the Middle East with conflict.”
One Thousand and One Nights, as it is originally known, is a collection of folk tales from the Middle East and Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries. Cooke adds, “These stories are derived from the streets, they’re not official, and so the issues in them are universal, such as ‘how do you live when you don’t have very much?’” There is no one original author of the collection of stories, but they were first compiled during the 14th century and different versions continued to be rewritten and recorded thereafter. The popularity of the epic text, which contains myths and legends spanning countries from India and Iran to Egypt, and genres from satire and comedy to romance and philosophy, soon spread to Europe. It was dubbed ‘Arabian Nights’ in the 18th century following an English translation from the original Arabic.
The tales are held together by the frame story of the Persian ruler Shahrayar, driven mad by his first wife’s infidelity. Branding all women unfaithful, he decides to take a new bride every night and execute her in the morning, until he marries the resourceful Shahrazad, who survives each night by enchanting him with her tales which span the globe, and wins his love in the process.
Cooke referred to the eighteen-volume English translation held at the British Library as his source for the original tale. The range of stories, from thriller and slapstick to an epic quest are what initially drew him to Arabian Nights, but he cites the storytelling element as the main inspiration for the adaptation. “When I first began researching One Thousand and One Nights I was amazed by its variety and complexity. A lot of its content was adult, so I knew I had to find stories that worked for kids but what really appealed to me was the idea that storytelling or the imagination can save your life, because Shahrazad famously tells stories to save her life,” he explains animatedly. “For me it’s a metaphor for the power of creativity and the power of the imagination to change and heal everyone who comes into contact with it, which is what I believe about the theatre,” he reveals. He recalls how his early experiences as a teenager reading books, going to the theatre and watching films shaped the way he viewed the world and fed his imagination. “I believe the arts can change your perception of the world and for me they have. The core idea of storytelling to heal a person in Arabian Nights is what really appealed to me.”
The play’s multi ethnic cast, headed by Indian actress Ayesha Dharker as Queen Shahrazad and British actor Silas Carson as her volatile King reflects the steps being taken towards theatre to be more representative of today’s multi-cultural society. Cooke acknowledges more needs to be done to draw the interest of people from non-traditional Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds into playwrighting, the reason why the Royal Court has been running an initiative specifically for BME writers and a separate one for writers from Muslim communities. “We do a lot of work to encourage people to write plays who wouldn’t have considered it. We get 3,000 unsolicited scripts a year at the Royal Court but what we weren’t getting were many plays from BME writers and specifically from Muslim writers, so we’ve got a scheme for them,” he explains. “It’s because we want to get those stories and voices on our stage. Often people whose voices are excluded from the mainstream have the most interesting things to say and the most urgent need to be heard.” Indeed, it was a participant of this very scheme, Alia Bano, who won for the Royal Court one of its four awards at the Standards Theatre Awards for Most Promising Playwright of 2009.
The narrative device employed in the epic is one that has been frequently adopted throughout literature and the oral tradition. The story within a story has been used far and wide, from Homer’s Odyssey in the 8th century BC to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in 19th century Victorian England. Cooke acknowledges the far reaching influence of the text. “The story of Arabian Nights informed a lot of Western literature and there’s also the journey the other way. It’s wonderful – it’s like Russian Dolls; there’s seven generation of stories within one another.” However, the depth and breadth of the collection of tales meant there would be obvious limitations when it came to adapting it. Cooke had to keep in mind a family friendly audience when selecting the stories, “there was so much to choose from that I wanted to do an adult version, but got distracted!”
The play, which is split into two acts, contains six tales including the story of Ali Baba and Es-Sindibad the sailor (both of which were added in much later versions of the text in Europe), and the Woman Who Wouldn’t Eat. Cooke was able to revise his previous adaptation to a grander scale for the RSC production and was keen to make it as authentic as possible, keeping the shape of the original written versions. “I went back to the original stories in more detail and did further research about what medieval Arabic society might have been like, and it informed what we did. My favourite tale is the Envious Sisters- it’s a piece about growing up and evolving as a human being into an adult, and learning from the struggles in life. It’s very redemptive.” He also cites the morals of each tale and the exploration of the human condition as its broad appeal: “For me, what’s wonderful about these stories is that they deal with universal situations and they are spiritual in that they are talking about higher values in life and what is important. These key values are the same among all the major religions.”
Cooke explains that references to the influence of Islam in this production are depicted very subtly. “I don’t think I’m qualified to search out Islamic influences and render them in the play because I don’t know enough about it – you can read, but it’s different to having a deeper understanding of the faith,” he admits. “What I have tried to do is be true to the culture and society which of course was very Islamic. The level of sophistication in law in those cultures, for example, was remarkable; everything was very measured.”
When asked what audiences can expect from the play Cooke replies, “A really entertaining, visual, funny and warm evening.” He hopes the universal values of Arabian Nights are what will draw a wide audience to his production. “It does have depth to it because it’s about how human beings get themselves into and out of the most terrible situations. If you take Shahrayar and Shahrazad’s story as a metaphor you’ve got someone who was completely destroyed and transformed into a monster, and is then healed back to life. So, there’s something profound about the possibility that humans can develop for the better, which I believe in.”
Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 30 January 2010, £14-£42 (0844 800 1110, www.rsc.org.uk)
As featured in January’s edition of ’emel’ magazine