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Arabian Nights - Interview with the Director

Arabian Nights - Interview with the Director

Issue 64 January 2010

Arabian Nights director Dominic Cooke speaks to Saadeya Shamsuddin about revisiting the ancient Eastern epic in a post 9/11 era and the need for more Muslim playwrights.


The magic and power of storytelling lives on. Like Queen Shahrazad who bewitched King Shahrayar, night after night with her magical tales, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s much anticipated production of Arabian Nights combines all the elements of an epic story that captivates its audience.

Adapted and directed by Dominic Cooke, artistic director of London’s Royal Court which recently swept the board at the prestigious Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the play features an ensemble cast of 18 actors, puppetry, song and dance to retell ancient stories of the East. Cooke originally staged the play at London’s Young Vic in 1998 and its success led to a UK tour and shows in New York; however he feels the play holds a particularly important resonance for audiences today. “It’s really interesting coming back to Arabian Nights now because the last time we did it was in 2000. Post-9/11 the West’s relationship to Islam and Islamic culture and history has changed beyond belief. Engaging with a text concerning the world of early Arab society at this point in history is a very different feeling to 10 years ago; it’s more political,” he says, explaining why he decided to revive the play 10 years after it was first staged. “Today, there’s a whole generation of kids who when they hear the word ‘Baghdad’ think of war. Many don’t know that whilst in Europe we were still really primitive, there was a very sophisticated, very pluralistic civilisation operating in that part of the world where these stories have come from,” he observes. “I was really interested in going back to that idea, because it does mean something different. There’s a line in Es-Sindibad (one of the tales in the play) ‘I return to Baghdad, City of Peace’ which is significant in a time where a whole generation of children associate a lot of the Middle East with conflict.”

One Thousand and One Nights, as it is originally known, is a collection of folk tales from the Middle East and Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries. Cooke adds, “These stories are derived from the streets, they’re not official, and so the issues in them are universal, such as ‘how do you live when you don’t have very much?’” There is no one original author of the collection of stories, but they were first compiled during the 14th century and different versions continued to be rewritten and recorded thereafter. The popularity of the epic text, which contains myths and legends spanning countries from India and Iran to Egypt, and genres from satire and comedy to romance and philosophy, soon spread to Europe. It was dubbed ‘Arabian Nights’ in the 18th century following an English translation from the original Arabic. 

The tales are held together by the frame story of the Persian ruler Shahrayar, driven mad by his first wife’s infidelity. Branding all women unfaithful, he decides to take a new bride every night and execute her in the morning, until he marries the resourceful Shahrazad, who survives each night by enchanting him with her tales which span the globe, and wins his love in the process... 


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