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One Thousand and One Nights - A Middle Eastern Epic in Edinburgh

Five minutes in Morocco, and the taxi radio is reporting a bombing in
Marrakesh. While it's safe enough driving towards the centre of Fez on
the other side of the country in April, it's just one more real life
incident that colours the creation and rehearsals for One Thousand and
One Nights, English director Tim Supple's epic multi-cultural,
multi-lingual staging of the greatest set of stories ever told. It isn
't the first chapter of an awfully big adventure that began in Egypt
before Supple's Dash Arts company and their co-producers from the
Toronto based Luminato festival were forced to decamp to Morocco after
the revolution there began, and, as it turns out, it won't be the last.

Even in Fez, where the rain is unseasonally biblical and where Supple
is putting his cast of nineteen actors and five musicians drawn from
all the Arab states in a show of artistic strength and unity in a
rundown temple where seven families still live on the edge of the
Medina, the real world can't help but inveigle into proceedings. This
is the case even as the palace-load of Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans,
Algerians Iranians and Iraqis effectively becomes a borderless state,
or at least a global village, that those in perennial conflict could
learn much from.

They could learn too from Lebanese-born writer Hanan al-Shaykh's
adaptation of stories fetishised in western versions as being strictly
for kids. Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor
may have become cosy archetypes softened by Disneyfication and
pantomime, but they find no place in al-Shaykh's version. Judging by
rehearsals convened in one of the palace's one hundred mosaic-lined
rooms rather than the soaking courtyard the company occupies on sunny
days but which is covered by plastic sheeting, this is an infinitely
more grown-up affair. The fact that a woman writer at all is writing
about sex and violence in a patriarchal Arab society is one thing, that
the men in the play come over as brutes, idiots and bullies expecting
their female subjects to do their bidding is even more telling.

This is clear early on Saturday morning when, after coffee on a terrace
that looks out over a city intermittently punctuated with the sounds
of people being called to prayer the performers greet each other with
hugs that seem to go beyond showbiz affectation beside a rug-lined
green-room. Today, this young, attractive cast, a mix of dancers,
story-tellers, poets and TV soap opera stars will continue work on the
tenth story.

Following on from the previous tale in which two sisters are beaten
like dogs, The Doorkeeper is a stark tale of temptation, faithlessness
and the painful consequences of both. As the musicians tucked at one
end of the room on percussion, violin and the stringed oud, an
ascetic-looking Supple sporting an east/west mish-mash of blue
tracksuit top flappy three-quarter length shorts and sandals guides the
action through a translator. Supple talks of naturalising the scene, of
working towards the bite of the doorkeeper's cheek being something
shocking. As the actors, led by Moroccan actress Hajar Garigaar as the
doorkeeper, respond, the musicians build to a crescendo as a by now
barefoot Supple becomes more urgent in his directions as he moves
across the distressed marble floor

Supple talks about drawing a sense of danger out of the scene as the
music, galloping along by now, adds momentum to everything the actors
do. Outside the open window the rain's back on again, the sound of its
steady stream counterpointing a fresh call to prayer.

“It's about power,” Supple explains to the cast about the life-changing
cheek-biting scene as the doorkeeper looks set to be cut in half. “You
have to believe in its rage. It's psychotic.”

Lunch is a much calmer affair, with the cast eating together in the
greenroom. If all rehearsal rooms are sacred, this one feels even more
so.

“I'd have everyone loving here onsite as well, “ Supple explains over a
cup of strong coffee, “but we had to transfer so quickly it wasn't
possible. But I love rehearsing in a place with its own character. In a
London rehearsal room there'd be this sense of not being interrupted,
but here some people live here, and they might be wandering around or
they might have an argument, and that becomes part of it, that sense of
aliveness.”

The last time Supple tackled something on this scale was his take on
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Made in India and Sri Lanka,
the similarly multi-racial production looked to the east for its
influences in much the same way Peter Brook's now legendary take on The
Mahabaratta did when it visited Glasgow in 1988. While the world has
clearly grown smaller since then, it's clear that without The
Mahabaratta, something it's unlikely something like One Thousand and
One Nights could happen.

“It's come about from the desire to tackle the truth of things and not
to skim on the inherited invention of things,” Supple says of his
current project. “I felt a few years ago that my knowledge of the Arab
world was very superficial and not based on any experience. My
knowledge of this wonderful thing called The Arabian Nights was based
on received information, so I'm not so much in the middle, but am some
way of trying to gain a deeper understanding of both those things.”

Performed in a mix of English, French and Arabic, One Thousand and One
Nights shouldn't, Supple says, “belong to one country or one set of
assumptions. Politically and theatrically I'm excited that I can't rely
on a familiar set of assumptions and do what I do in Britain. Those
conditions don't exist, and I put everybody in that position, whatever
country people are from. They can't rely on the things they're used to
being reflected in the same way, and that's important, because there's
a deeper agenda here that's about aiming for a theatrical expression
that goes beyond cultural narrowness and linguistics. Our language for
our show is this hopping between English, Arabic and French, but also
the body and the music.”

In terms of outside events, the cast can't help but be affected, even
as the bond into a powerful community. One of the Egyptian performers
spends most of his lunch-break online keeping tabs on what is going on
back home. The Syrian uprising that began in January is also uppermost
in peoples minds. For Ramzi Choukair, a Franco-Syrian writer and actor
based in Damascus, however, doing One Thousand and One Nights is as
important a statement as anything going on in the political world.

“He believes he is working beside the people who are for democracy and
freedom even if he is here,” Choukair says through his friend and
colleague, Ammar Haj Ahmed, a published poet as well as an actor, who
Choukair studied with and is also appearing in the show. “He says he
makes these stories from his culture feel alive again. At the same
time, Arabic dictators are trying to kill these stories. Even though he
feels the pain, he is trying to protect these stories for his country.
It's important that British artist came to our culture to tell these
stories. The people in our countries may think they will see One
Thousand and One Nights as a sexy and naked and orgy, but they will be
amazed by the killing and brutality of simple people. This will make
everything clear about Arabic culture, specially as in our culture we
say it with our lips rather than through a book.”

Several weeks later, and the opening of One Thousand and One Nights in
Toronto goes off without a hitch. The six week run in Chicago, however,
is cancelled. Delays by the United States authorities in processing
visas for actors from the politically sensitive countries of Egypt,
Syria and Iraq prevent it. In the current climate of post 9/11 paranoia
and the ever worsening, ever complex middle eastern conflict, this
isn't unusual, and there are no special fast-track concessions for
artists. This is even before the latest wave of violence in Syria
against pro-democracy protesters angered the world in the last month.

Thinking about this, there's something that Garigaa said back on that
soaking wet April weekend in Fez that's now more pertinent than ever.

“All these external events give you more energy to do what you have to
do,” she said. “Even if we don't reach a perfect level of performance,
what's important is that its gathered all the different cultures of
Arab performance together and has made this happen. That's enough to
show the world that we can work together on this piece of art.”

One Thousand and One Nights, EIF@Royal Lyceum Theatre. Part 1, Tuesday
23, Thursday 25 and Tuesday 30 August, 7pm; Sunday 21, Saturday 27,
Sunday 28, Wednesday 31 August and Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September,
2pm. Part 2, Sunday 21, Wednesday 24, Friday 26, Saturday 27, Sunday
28, Wednesday 31 August, Thursday 1, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 September,
7pm. Parts 1 and 2, Sunday 21, Saturday 27, Sunday 28, Wednesday 31
August, Friday 2 and September 3 September, 2pm and 7pm.
www.eif.co.uk/1001

The Herald, August 12th 2011

ends

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