The British director Tim Supple plans to reimagine the tales of Scheherazade for the stage
Nights to Remember
Sandals off, legs crossed, hands weaving arabesques as he talks, the theatre director Tim Supple hardly pauses for breath as he explains his latest theatrical escapade. Perched on the landing at the top of the stairs of the National Theatre rehearsal rooms, he cuts a puckish figure. Well, he would. His version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2006 wowed the critics with its multilingual display of song, dance and acrobatics performed by a cast from the Indian subcontinent.
Now he has embarked on the long process of bringing The Tales of The Arabian Nights to the stage. In fact, he refers to the tales by their alternative title, 1,001 Nights - which could well be as long as it takes to get the production on stage next year in Toronto, Canada. As he did before, Supple is making a daunting project more challenging by tapping into talent from actors and directors in the Middle East to make his latest dream a reality.
He has already been to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. This month he plans to visit Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and eventually Iraq, Yemen, Iran and India. "What I don't want to do is a production based on the clichés or only on what I know now," says Supple, who talks with such enthusiasm that words pile up. "I have been meeting producers, directors, performers as well as composers, musicians and choreographers, not to mention academics and writers, all talking about 1,001 Nights."
One cliché - or common misunderstanding - that he swiftly dismisses is that the stories most associated with the Arabian Nights - Ali Baba and Aladdin - were originally among those told by Scheherazade to stay the hand of the sultan who avenges his wife's infidelity by killing a woman every day after sleeping with her. Scheherazade so enchants him with her storytelling that after 1,001 nights he relents and marries her.
Supple says: "Aladdin and Ali Baba were not part of the original. Nearly everyone thinks they were but over centuries 1,001 Nights became a sort of dustbin for any story by anybody who wanted to chuck one in. "Most of us have based our knowledge on the version written by a French scholar, Antoine Galland, between 1704 and 1717. Experts are almost 100 per cent sure that Galland was told those stories by someone and threw them in.
"There is a fragment from the ninth century that mentions Scheherazade," he says. "And there is a Syrian manuscript from, maybe, the 12th century in the Bibliotheque in Paris. The originals have a pure kind of quality set within cities and souqs. They are about men and women, they are about mutilation, they are about demons, they are about choices and the sort of magic within the city. They are nothing like Ali Baba or Aladdin, which are no more than fantasy.
"What we do know - and this is part of my journey - is that the tales were probably Indian first, then Persian and then Arabic. At the beginning of one story it says, 'In the land of India there was a king, the King is a Persian.' That's in an Arabic text, which gives you the sort of archaeological layers of the stories. There is no coherent, formal collection but when you read the latest Penguin version, which is translated by the Iraqi academic Husain Haddawy, you will discover a wonderful, brilliant, brutal version of what we would call a romantic epic told, in a sort of narrative of heightened realism."
This feels very much like Supple territory, who has worked for the National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Young Vic with an eclectic range of works such as Grimm Tales, Hansel and Gretel and The Magic Flute. "The idea came to me in 2005 when I started travelling in India. It was like a revelation to me about how I wanted to work. I realised I wanted to go to places that I didn't know and collaborate with artists who bring me something completely different. I thought I would like to do the same process in the Arab world because I wanted to get greater understanding of Arab politics and culture."
Supple's first trips to Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt helped him work out what he was looking for: how the work might progress, who to audition and how to learn. "It was about me beginning to orient myself," he says. "I don't know anything about the Arab world or its history and I don't have the language, but I am beginning to learn. "For example, Palestine is part of the story. It is about the complex relationship between East and West. It wasn't a discovery - 'this is a shock, here's a wall dividing the country from Israel' - but it was as if the people I met were the living manifestation of the wall or the fence or the barrier. I saw that there are two different ways of looking at the world: do you see it from the East or do you see it from the West?
"Subjects such as Palestine, suicide bombings, America or history itself are seen from a different perspective. You see the suspicion, the scepticism and the distrust. This becomes part of the fabric of the story I shall be telling." But how will Supple relate the reality of a subject such as Palestine to the magical realism of the books? How will it work? "I don't know is the answer. Put it this way, 1,001 Nights is a work of classic folk literature and art so it is not specific to the politics of any one moment any more than Shakespeare, the Greeks or any work of myth or legend. It transcends the moment we live in yet is always resonant and relevant, so it has its own life and its own story. Now, whether that life and story from 1,001 Nights overlaps with the plight of the Palestinians, it's not up to me to gear that. It's up to the book, the Palestinians and to other people watching it to see if it connects."
One discovery Supple made was how little theatre there is in the Arab world compared with India, where musical traditions have been allowed to develop with a combination of physical skills, dance, music and acting which "interweave with the idea of the sacred". "The Arab empire came from a culture of nomadism which doesn't make for a culture of theatre as we know it in the West," he explains. "But it does make for a tradition of poetry, narrative and epic stories."
All of these ideas and insights beg the ultimate question: does Supple have a sense of where he is heading with his production? "Sense is a good word," he says, gazing into an unfocused future. "I think that is all I have got. It's just a bit early in the process. One's own sense of integrity takes one to the core of what interests one about a piece. I do believe that. "The stories are more about survival. The story of Scheherazade isn't just the story of two wives who were unfaithful to their husbands - which led to her putting herself forward. It's a metaphor for survival in life and in relationships.
"Each story feeds into the general picture of what's involved between those two human beings, the sultan and Scheherazade. For the three years she is with him, the stories paint many pictures of male deceit and female deceit, male violence and female violence, male power and female power. The stories are complex and erotic, which is not what people associate with the book." Certainly, though the careful language of the 18th-century collection carefully describes the infidelity of the sultana as "infamous actions", the goings on in the palace amount to something much more salacious.
"There's a lot more where that came from," says Supple. "I am interested in the whole landscape of relationships because that feeds back into the central story of Scheherazade and the sultan. I am very interested in the extreme outer register of their sensuality, the explicit nature of some of the later stories, the violence of it, the things that takes us into our souls. "You've got this fantastic structure of the story within the story within the story. That's why you need the time. I do think it will need more than the theatre's standard two or three hours. Maybe it could be shown over three nights, which will also give the audience a sense of time.
"The tales are told over three years, she has three children while she is telling the stories and time will allow us to travel to all those places named in the stories such as India, Basra, Damascus, Persia, Western China. I think what the 1,001 Nights are - for me at the moment - is not schematic, not logical. They don't teach you and they're not dry. They take you though the contours of the experience of love. And for that you need time.