“Whoever sits on this carpet will fly in an instant to wherever he wishes to go…”
Last year I was approached by the Unicorn Theatre, London, to make a new play based on the collection of stories we know as The One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights. These stories began as folk tales from the oral traditions of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, India, Persia and Mesopotamia. They were first written down as collections by unknown authors around 1,200 years ago. I only knew Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor. It was a daunting prospect because there are actually hundreds of stories.
On reading more than 1,500 pages, it became clear that there was more to them than the memories I had from Disney films. They are so magical, surprising and touching. When you read them, they’re real page turners, because they are totally unpredictable and very inventive. They have these brilliant flights within them. These stories – stories about stories, and stories within stories – seemed to have a magical power to make sense of our world, often exploring themes of war, exile, journey, loss, loneliness and reunification. Thinking about how alive these stories have been for hundreds of years, how they have time travelled and crossed countries, how they have constantly evolved, been changed and remade by storytellers, writers, film and theatre makers, it seemed fitting to make our own version.
This is a devised show, which means we had no ‘script’ when we began rehearsals. I started by asking: “What do these stories mean to us today?” Ours is a modern take, set in the contemporary world of a UK city. There’s still Shahrazad, telling rather amazing stories of kings, viziers and jinns, only this time she’s not trying to save herself from execution but is instead using storytelling as a means to make sense of her turbulent world. Forced to leave her beloved mother behind in her native Damascus, she flees with her father to the UK, only to be faced with an unfamiliar city, culture and language. This time, Shahrazad’s stories aren’t what keeps her safe but what keeps her going.
The stories you will see and hear in our version of 1001 Nights are the original texts, made-up stories, regurgitated and remixed versions of the originals and perhaps stories that just aren’t in 1001 Nights at all. They create a strange kind of magic by which we can all escape the difficulties of the present moment, offering possibilities of renewal.
Making our first piece for young people was an illuminating experience. Young audiences are thrilling because they have little cynicism or censorship of the imagination. Theatre is about the power of the collective imagination. With adults you have to negotiate a few hurdles to get their imaginations working. Children are more ‘game’. If what you’re doing is honest and truthful they’re really up for the journey and they’ll go further. A mop will be a flying carpet if it’s is invested in enough.
This is the production’s second outing. It has been glorious to fly with these stories once again because there’s always more to find within them.
1001 Nights is at the Unicorn Theatre from 5 – 22 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Unicorn’s website. Photo by Zbigniew Kotkiewicz.