Tim Supple's brings his theatre troupe to Abu Dhabi for a series of events at New York University en route to Cairo.
1,001 Nights troupe in Abu Dhabi
The caravan of Tim Supple's 1,001 Nights stage adaptation rolls on. And with the play still a work in progress, the director arrived in Abu Dhabi yesterday for a series of events with members of his troupe, en route to their final castings in Cairo next week.
Six years in the making, the play is envisaged as a "tapestry of tales" drawn from the 9th-century Arabic epic, revisiting the stories Sheherazade tells the despotic King Sharyar each night to save herself from beheading.
It opens in Toronto next June, before embarking on a world tour including possible stops in the Middle East. Supple even hopes to stage a production in Ramallah.
The cast will comprise 25 actors, the majority from the Middle East, with rehearsals starting in February. Casting sessions have recently taken place in Algiers, Tunis and Marrakech.
"It's not like reality TV," says Supple. "I'm not sitting behind a desk doing my schtick. We meet in group workshops and through that process come to better understand the stories."
The play will take up where its forerunner, the visually spectacular Midsummer Night's Dream, left off. That starred an Indian cast delivering Shakespeare in a plethora of Indian languages, and was hailed by critics - nonplussed though they were by the script - as a theatrical masterstroke.
This, too, will be multi-lingual, with Arabic and English parallel texts being written in collaboration with the Lebanese writer Hanan al Shaykh. "With Midsummer Night's Dream, we had seven Indian languages going on," says Supple. "Half was in English, but no one would it have wholly understood it. With 1,001 Nights, everyone so far speaks Arabic except for one - an Iranian dancer. By communicating visually, and through the clarity of the acting, we'll make it work."
Students at New York University Abu Dhabi will get a preview of their efforts today, as the troupe perform some skits and sketches for their delectation.
It is a vastly ambitious, if unwieldy, plan, both demanding and hugely daunting. "It's been a process of discovery," said the actress Houda Echouafni, 33, from London. "It can be scary, like jumping with no parachute."
Actors play multiple roles, with kings or princesses reincarnated as slaves and villains in later sequences. It all sounds wonderfully fluid, and they describe it in gloriously thespian terms.
These are urban myths, conveyed in a style of magical realism that would influence writers from Voltaire, Swift and Coleridge to Borges. "It all takes place in the arena of the city," says the director. "The action is in cellars and back alleys, souqs and rooftops and bedrooms. Within that realm, these are stories of the human condition."
Most of the drama is set in the caliphate of Harun al Rashid, in 8thcentury Baghdad. "He was a pious man, ridden with contradictions," says Supple. "But his Baghdad is the sun through which everything emanates, and it's all set in an Islamic context."
The politics of race and gender are played out in brutal terms. "The stories take place in the zone of sexuality, romance and violence. They're about the power of ruler over the ruled. And they are all told with a terrible honesty."
His themes will have acute contemporary resonance with conflict, a particularly emotive topic.
"At the time, the Arab world was the greatest show on earth," says Supple. "In these reductive, lazy times, people talk of the Arab world and the Arab street. The tales show us how varied the Arabic-speaking world is.
"It's the same with the show - there's this cliché about magic carpets, but these aren't tales for children. It's folklore, often dark, bawdy, explicit. And it has a resonance. It comes alive."
Interpreting The 1,001 Nights for the Stage. Tonight, 7pm-9pm, Al Mamoura Auditorium, Abu Dhabi. Visit www.nyuad.nyu.edu