Although the initial draw for me to attend this year’s festival in Edinburgh, Scotland was the focus on Asia, another production - a retelling and staging of 1001 Arabian Nights by director Tim Supple - was a thrilling addition to my sojourn.
I’ll admit the advertisements for this production did not initially appeal to me. Another re-telling of the Arabian Nights; no photo of the actors or staging; just a vague street scene on the websites and posters - leading me to believe it would simply be another Disney-fied version. Boy, was I mistaken! On the contrary the first of four parts (performed over two nights) was a brutal assault on the senses to such a degree that it elicited the response, “This is just disgusting!” from someone in the audience during intermission. I didn’t disagree with him, but the second part provided enough comic relief to allow me to reflect on the purpose of that violent introduction. For those who need a refresher, the story, or stories, of 1001 Arabian Nights are those passed down in several versions telling the fate of Shahrazad (Sheherazade), who weds Shahrayar, a great king turned violent after being betrayed by his wife. He resorts to killing a virgin bride each night, of course after raping her, in retaliation against the entire female population. Shahrazad takes it upon herself to end the violence by sacrificing herself in the belief, hope and determination that she can hold the King’s attention with her stories each night and thus prolong their marriage, saving scores of young girls from death. The scene where she pleads with her father, none other than the king’s Vizier, to allow her to marry Shahrayar is central to understanding the clear intention of her sacrifice. For this reason the initial stories (in this version and staging) are uncommonly violent and depicted accordingly. But as I concluded later: how else is one to hold the attention of a ruler turned violent despot than with tales of sexual conquest, brutal violence and sinister betrayal? And that is what greets the audience during the first part of this extraordinary tri-lingual production (Arabic, English, French) featuring a stunning pan-Arabic cast directed by Tim Supple.
As I mentioned the second part of the first evening took a markedly lighter turn and presented a dizzying array of stories within stories where actors play multiple roles simultaneously. It’s only when the light focuses on Shahrazad center stage and we hear the periodic exchange with her sister (who accompanies her through her ordeal): “Shahrazad, that was the most amazing story! - Oh, but you haven’t you heard the one about the ... it’s even more amazing!” - that the audience chuckles in relief and astonishment as we realize how far we’d been taken on the metaphorical magic carpet. It actually seemed as if the King was following audience reaction when he allowed Shahrazad to continue ... always just one more night.
The fact that the stories are traditionally in Arabic but tell the story of a Persian king presents a unique quandary for those who would love to present the production but who also recognize that such visceral depictions in the arts can spill over into global politics particularly with tensions as they are in the Middle East right now. I don’t know if that was a conscious decision by someone when the North American tour was restricted to Canada and some of the performers were not granted visas to the U.S. (according to someone on the management team). But it’s unfortunate that audiences - (adult audiences: the play should be rated ‘R’ for strong language and adult themes) - aren’t able to witness this extraordinary production that deals openly with tough issues. As Supple writes in the program notes, the stories “were not created for children; they are explicit, violent, complex, difficult, long, tough and adult.” Perhaps that is why we are constantly confronted with Disney versions of some of the tales in the West (or “orientalized” for those of you who know your Edward Said). It still hasn’t been possible to cross the threshold, past the ethnic and national origins of the tales to fully embrace their meaning and subtlety. The tri-lingual nature of this production is in my view extremely important for its success in bridging this gap: the stories are predominantly told in Arabic in an adaptation by Hanan al-Shaykh with occasional forays into French and English. The outstanding ensemble cast features actors from across the Arabic world from Morocco to the U.A.E., and an ensemble of musicians provided live incidental music on traditional Middle Eastern instruments but often with unique jazz-inflected interpretations of what’s possible within the Arabic improvisational tradition.
Have we really determined that the Edinburgh International Festival can pull this one off with packed houses at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, but U.S. presenters somehow can’t?