Edinburgh does a picture-postcard Christmas as well as any northern European city, and no trip to the Scottish capital in December is complete without a visit to the famous Royal Lyceum Theatre for its festive show. This stunning Victorian venue has in the past fallen down the rabbit hole for Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, got ghostly with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and whizzpopped to Roald Dahl's The BFG. This year, however, family audiences will be taken on a trip far less travelled – to a magical market square in Baghdad.
"And it looks absolutely beautiful," beams British-Sudanese playwright Suhayla El-Bushra as she puts the finishing touches to her new adaptation of The Arabian Nights, the world premiere of which takes place this week.
“I remember these incredibly varied stories as a child growing up in Sudan, so I was really excited to be asked to put them together as a family show – especially as they celebrate a diverse, cosmopolitan Baghdad. It’s a view of Arabic culture maybe people don’t see so much in the UK.”
Admittedly, most cities in the UK are probably used to pantomimes loosely drawing on the tales of Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, Sinbad or Aladdin. But few celebrate the rich poetry or heady atmosphere of the 1,001 Nights compendium from which they are taken. Indeed, director Joe Douglas says that it was a production of Arabian Nights that made him want to work in theatre in the first place – "it was just magical, the idea of all these tales tumbling out of each other" – and the scene was set for a show packed with vibrant new music, bringing together heroes and villains, genies and chess-playing monkeys in a unique, modern take on 1,001 Nights.
Unique because El-Bushra felt the original framing device – the Sultan kills his wives before they can be unfaithful to him, until Scheherazade staves off imminent doom by telling him stories without an end – was “problematic”. So instead, the action begins with Scheherazade’s mother imprisoned for illegally selling stories at the Baghdad market – along with the rest of the bazaar’s community. So Scheherazade must go and tell stories to the Sultan to get her family and friends back.
As the Royal Lyceum puts it: “It might just be Scheherazade’s imagination that saves the day... if only she can catch the Sultan in her web of stories”
El-Bushra says: “The play is about the power of stories and how they help us to learn about other people. Everybody has a story worth listening to. Actually, this version has got quite a strong pro-immigration message – which I felt was really necessary in 2017.”
And, if that sounds like it would infuriate 1,001 Nights purists, nothing could be further from the truth. After all, these stories have always been shaped to suit their times, and they are probably as Indian as they are Persian, as European as they are Arabic.
“I’ve kept some stories the same; I’ve adapted some to suit our audience and today’s ideas; and some I’ve just made up completely from scratch,” says El-Bushra.
"The nature of The 1,001 Nights has always been that they keep being added to, rotated and changed, so I felt perfectly comfortable doing that. We needed to have the 'greatest hits' of course, but there are some lesser known stories in there too."
Like, ahem, The Tale of Abu Hasan and the Giant Fart. "Which is the one I remember most from when I was younger," says El-Bushra, laughing. "We've made that one central to the whole production, actually!"
Douglas says: "These stories do work brilliantly for kids. So many of them are about speaking truth to power, or being a bit cheeky, or standing up for yourself in the face of adversity. Kids respond to that, so what I hope is that we are another link in the great chain that is 1,001 Nights."
But the real timeless beauty of these stories is that they can mean anything to anyone. In the end, that’s why they have lasted.
“They’re just a really good combination,” says El-Bushra. “There’s plenty of humour, there are moral ones, magic ones, and some really dark ones. There’s a lot of beauty and poetry… it’s a real compendium.”
It's not difficult, then, to conclude that El-Bushra's heritage has given her a more nuanced understanding of The Arabian Nights - which in turn should lead to a much more satisfying show. Ironically, she thinks her English mother introduced her to these stories in Sudan when she was growing up there, but her upbringing has certainly informed the production.
“I think being British-Sudanese informs my take on everything I write actually,” she says.
“I didn’t see my understanding and experience of that world reflected in the theatre or television when I was growing up, and I don’t now. So while these stories didn’t sit directly in Sudanese folklore, I always make sure I bring that into everything I write.”
The Arabian Nights runs until January 6, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, UK. For more information see lyceum.org.uk
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