Once upon a time…
Rage and wit, they clashed under the night sky. Words played sheath to the wrath of an angry king. Wisdom came in tales woven by starlight — leaving threads to be followed when darkness fell again.
It was the time of Scheherazade. She had been married off to a sultan, whose love had been rebuked by the infidelity of a wife and who had decided that at the end of the celebratory night of a wedding, his new spouse would have to lose her head.
It was a time of magic, when through plot twists and turns, Scheherazade used storytelling to create worlds of intrigue and allure. And enrapture the sultan till he gave up on his cruel plan.
It was a journey to revelations and change.
Let’s return to that once upon a time.
A new adaptation of the Arabian epic, titled ‘1001 Nights: The Last Chapter’, debuts on April 23 at Al Majaz Amphitheatre. The production, touted as the first-of-its kind, will celebrate the launch of Sharjah as the Unesco World Book Capital 2019 and will run until April 27.
But in this iteration, there’s a shift in focus. It’s no longer an episode of survival, but one of discovery. In it, the legacies of Scheherazade — her children Fayrouz, Kader and Amin — undertake three quests in search of the truth.
Director Sebastien Soldevila says the decision to fast forward in time did not come easy, but it was a matter of necessity. “Mr Philippe Skaff, who is the creative director on the show, came to see me and proposed to me to write a story about 1001 Nights”, he explains. “It took me first a lot of time to really understand what was ‘1001 Nights’. I thought I knew from my childhood, but I realised that book is really more complex than what we think.” For one thing, there’s a library of stories — “about 230,” he says. “We realised that we cannot tell the story of ‘1001 Nights’, we need to write a new chapter.”
The original narrative — ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ — turns into a main character.
Like Scheherazade’s task, this is an attempt to change the heart, one anecdote at a time. “The real message in that show is as long as there is somebody to write, somebody to read, somebody to tell stories, the world will be a better place,” says Soldevila.
Not an easy story to tell
But just as the story needed a fresh perspective, its telling called for an update. Originally, he says, “it was a three-and-a-half-hour play with a lot of words, so the first challenge was to reduce the amount of text so we can have a live show, so we don’t spend like two hours listening [to dialogue]”.
Production values were also taken into the never-before-seen realm. “We decided [we were going to use different types of technology] because we move from different worlds, we are going to an island, we are going to ‘cursed garden’, palace of Scheherazade. The changes in the world they are visiting are huge. So we put all that in the hand of Artist in Motion [company]. We said, ‘ok we are going to design the set, you are going to use projection and those projections are going to be able to take you to different worlds’.”
The caveat? It may be fantastic, but even fiction must be rooted in reality. “They [the worlds created] can’t look too fake,” he explains. A Herculean task, especially because of the venue. Al Majaz Amphitheatre is a Roman-colosseum style open air theatre, which would require smart projections.
“The projection is following what’s moving,” ensuring that no matter what your viewpoint, you have a 3D picture that makes sense in your line of vision, says Soldevila.
Many, many people
Finally, says the director — also the co-founding artistic director of Canadian artist collective ‘The 7 Fingers’ — was insistent on a diverse cast. “[Another] challenge was we needed an international show with a lot of different players,” he explains. And so they called on more than 500 artists and technical experts from 25 nations to complete the show.
Coordinating logistics that include a 51-piece live orchestra, international actors, gymnasts and acrobats — there are 13 different types of performance arts — requires an unusual amount of dexterity; there are egos and time differences to factor in.
But will all of this practice, genre-melding, reworking result in a hooked audience? Remember, this is a saga that’s rippled through story time of most generations ever since it was first narrated (Soldevila puts timeline in the 3rd century BC). “We designed this show so that people who don’t know anything about ‘1001 Nights’... can understand [it]. So we do a bit of [Nights] 101, remembering; we put a bit of text about what happened in 1001 Nights, so they can understand. So the people who know the piece are going to be really pleased and the people who don’t know the story, I hope they are going to want to read the book, because it’s also an introduction to the ‘1001 Nights’,” he says.
As the stars come out to play: let’s pit wit against wit and tale against tale. Let’s return to the age of once upon a time.
Don’t miss it!
Tickets to see ‘1001 Nights: The Last Chapter’, which runs at Al Majaz Amphitheatre on April 23 at 9pm and subsequently has daily shows until April 27, start at Dh135.
‘1001 NIGHTS: THE LAST CHAPTER’ IN NUMBERS
The number of languages you can hear the play in — Arabic, English, French — through headphones.
Amount of electrical cabling needed in this production.
Speakers used across the theatre
Mobile lights in use
Year the Al Majaz Amphitheare, a Roman-colosseum style open air theatre was built.
Types of performance arts in the show
Long fabric was used to make costumes
People were part of the recording music of the team. They hail from France, Czech Republic, Holland, Serbia, Algeria, Lebanon, Armenia and Canada