x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Updating the classic Arabian Nights

We talk to the husband and wife team behind the play Arab Nights. London's Metta Theatre has commissioned six writers to adapt the ancient Arabian Nights stories and link them to recent political events in the Middle East.

Arab Nights features just three actors. Richard Davenport.
Arab Nights features just three actors. Richard Davenport.

It’s a meta-fictional story with a similar structure to the movie Inception. Its overarching theme is the power of speech to enable the dispossessed to stand up to tyrants, although it also mashes up murder mystery, horror and sci-fi. It is, says the director Poppy Burton-Morgan, “provocative and political”. She’s talking, if you haven’t already guessed, not about some imaginative new take on the Tahrir Square protests, but about Arabian Nights, the collection of Persian and Indian folk tales that was translated into Arabic in the early eighth century, and went on to influence everyone from James Joyce, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe to the Walt Disney Company.

The fables are also the inspiration for Arab Nights, a play that Burton-Morgan’s Metta Theatre is putting on in London and then four other UK cities this month and next. Six writers – from or with strong family ties to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran and Iraq – have been commissioned to write short pieces within the familiar framing story of Scheherazade and her plan to stave off execution. The writers were encouraged to make links between the ancient stories and recent political events in the Middle East, and the finished production will encompass choreographed performance art, video, shadow puppetry and live music, using just three actors to play dozens of roles. There are currently plans to take the play on a tour of the Middle East in 2014.

Burton-Morgan and her husband and the co-artistic director, William Reynolds, run Metta Theatre in an ethically aware manner from an office in Fulham. They founded the company as students in 2005 and secured Arts Council funding for the first time last year. During those seven years, the company’s imaginative, multimedia, often site-specific or interactive plays have had glowing reviews in the UK press. Reynolds designs sets and lighting, Burton-Morgan directs and their five-month old son Noah, she jokes, “is going to be running rehearsal rooms for us as soon as he can walk and talk”.

One of the catalysts for Arab Nights was a trip Burton-Morgan made to Palestine, during which she met the Ramallah-based writer Raja Shehadeh: he became the first writer to join the project. Life in the Palestinian territories, Shehadeh says, is “so fanciful and strange”, that it felt right to combine the book’s fantastical visions with a realistic portrayal of his own experience. “I hope that the audience will get carried away, laugh and take away from my piece [the idea] that nothing about the situation here is permanent and hopeless, because what is so senseless and ridiculous cannot be lasting.”

For Burton-Morgan, the aims of entertaining and educating the audience are inseparable. The more imaginative a work of art is, the more it engages theatregoers who are not especially interested in politics – such as her mother, who “is not that aware of the differences between what’s going on in Syria say, and what’s going on in Egypt. It’s as much for her as for an Arabic audience”.

The writers

Hassan Abdulrazzak

The celebrated Iraqi playwright, who has lived in the UK since he was a child, has turned the story of Sinbad the Sailor into a political allegory. Not only did his 2007 debut, Baghdad Wedding, get rave reviews and multiple awards, but he also has a day job as a post-doctoral researcher in biology at Imperial College.

Chirine El Ansary

The Egyptian storyteller was trained in Cairo, London and Paris and has previously performed tales from Arabian Nights in places including Zanzibar and Rotterdam. Her piece depicts three women sharing tales on a plane bound for Cairo and deals explicitly, Poppy Burton-Morgan says, “with issues of Egyptian women in post-revolution Egypt”.

Raja Shehadeh

Ancient and contemporary walls are discussed in the story by the Orwell Prize-winning journalist, memoirist, activist and lawyer, who is based in Palestine’s West Bank. It mixes fantasy with real life, recounting the true story of a dangerous border crossing undertaken by Palestinian and Syrian refugees last year.

Tania El Khoury

Shoes are a recurring theme in the story by this Lebanese performance artist, who has previously performed solo artworks at the British Museum and in a cable car. Here, she adopts the point of view of a footwear-obsessed first lady who communicates via Twitter and weaves in video footage, choreography and dark comedy.

Ghalia Kabbani

A writer in Damascus Skypes with a friend as young people protest on the streets in Kabbani’s first theatre work, which has a cast of 30 characters and involves shadow puppetry and stories within stories. The Syrian journalist, activist and novelist grew up in Kuwait and currently lives in London, where she writes for Al-Hayat.

Anonymous

An actor talks directly to the audience about the thrill of protest in the piece by Arab Nights’ Iranian contributor, who is forbidden from leaving the country and is anonymous for safety reasons. The writer was introduced to Burton-Morgan through friends via Facebook and the two have developed an “amazing relationship” online and over the phone.

The UK tour of Arab Nights runs from November 21 to December 13. Visit www.mettatheatre.co.uk