There is something about the tales included in One Thousand and One Nights that leave us wide-eyed with wonder. Collected over many centuries and rooted in the folklore and literature of different Eastern cultures, these stories are full of magic and mystery, dreams and disorientation. To read One Thousand and One Nights is to untether from the mundane and float off to a world freed from reality.
It is no surprise, then, to discover that transferring this amorphous, mystical beast to the stage is a major ordeal – how on Earth do you bring together the kaleidoscopic patterns of hundreds of different imaginations?
The answer, in the case of a new production opening tonight at the lakeside Al Majaz Amphitheatre in Sharjah, is to go big – very, very big.
1001 Nights: The Last Chapter, the centrepiece of the opening ceremony to celebrate Sharjah's selection as Unesco World Book Capital 2019, features 557 people from 25 countries, a full orchestra, 250 moving lights, 80 surround-sound speakers, 3D technology and a 43-metre wide stage. Oh, and a handful of horses, too.
"It was a challenge because these tales have been recreated 1,001 times," says Philippe Skaff, chief creative officer of Multiple International, the company behind this production. "It's a big basin of paints coming from so many cultures of this part of the world. We wanted to approach it in a very fresh way."
Skaff has been working with Montreal circus troupe The 7 Fingers and Sydney creative company Artists in Motion since August, to try and achieve the spectacular. "I want you to feel the magic," he says. "These productions can surprise you by inventing worlds that do not exist."
When 1001 Nights: The Last Chapter was announced last month, Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, head of the Inauguration Ceremony Committee of the Sharjah World Book Capital, said: "[This] is set to change the face of live entertainment in the UAE, and will reinvent the genre of performing arts."
It's not only the scale of the production that will surprise people. The story itself is new. The framing device for One Thousand and One Nights is well-known. A king named Shahryar is betrayed by his wife and, as an act of revenge, he decides to marry a new woman each night and have her executed in the morning. One night, Shahryar marries Scheherazade, who proceeds to tell the king a story, which ends on a cliffhanger. Desperate to know what happens next, Shahryar spares Scheherazade, so she can return the following evening and finish her story. This carries on for 1,001 nights.
However, in this new Sharjah production, available simultaneously in Arabic, English and French, we find Scheherazade on her death bed, telling one final story to her three children, Fayrouz, Kader and Amin, who then set off on three different adventures across land and sea, in search of the objects their mother mentions.
“We needed to have a different feel,” says Skaff. “We started by changing Scheherazade from the way she has been depicted in adaptations, such as the Disney one, which makes it very light, almost children-oriented.
"But One Thousand and One Nights is quite serious, and there are lots of levels to every story.
"This production is very dreamy, a total transportation into another world. One Thousand and One Nights releases the imagination of people, anything is believable, anything can happen, any creature can pop up with one eye or six legs. We have tried to keep a lot of that magic in the show."
This is where Artists in Motion, which worked on the recent production of King Kong on Broadway, comes in. There will be large screens around the amphitheatre projecting images that will help immerse the audience in their surroundings. This synchronicity between what is happening on stage and what is happening on screen has taken months to achieve. Videos of rehearsals were sent to Artists in Motion, in order to ensure the projections are timed with both the movement of the performers and the music. "Everything is linked together," says Skaff.
He says, however, that 1001 Nights: The Last Chapter is not just about impressive technology and breathtaking stunts, even if some of the cast are acrobats who have performed with Cirque du Soleil. Skaff has tried to create something with more feeling. "If the audience is expecting Cirque du Soleil numbers, they'll be disappointed," he says. "We have some of the best performers in the world but the stunts are only part of the story, not what I want people to enjoy alone. At no point are the performers just doing stuff for the sake of it. When I go and see purely acrobatic shows, I get bored."
The music, composed by Maxime Lepage, who has also previously worked with Cirque du Soleil, will play a key role in creating the right atmosphere. A 51-piece symphony orchestra will be led by Harout Fazlian, principal conductor of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, while musicians who play lesser-known instruments, such as the daf – a large Kurdish drum – have been brought in.
"I have tried to reveal some music from areas and instruments that are here in the Middle East," says Skaff. "We've got one of the best daf players in the world, Hussain Zahawi, performing live on stage in the final act. The music is going to blow your mind."
1001 Nights: The Last Chapter will be the ideal way to launch Sharjah's year as World Book Capital, following in the footsteps of Beirut, Bangkok and Athens. "It's becoming slowly known worldwide that Sharjah is a very culture-oriented emirate," says Skaff.
"This is recognition from Unesco; it's not easy to get this prize. You have to have a lot of merit."
It seems fitting that a theatre production inspired by some of the oldest stories known to man have been chosen to launch a year of new adventures in literature.
1001 Nights: The Last Chapter is on at the Al Majaz Amphitheatre from April 23-April 27. For tickets available from Dh135, www.sharjah.platinumlist.net