1001 Nights is an enchanting new adaptation of the Arabian Nights folk tales for children by Transport Theatre, now playing at venues around the UK and at London’s Unicorn Theatre from June 5-22. I caught up with director Douglas Rintoul.
What attracted you to this particular story?
Last year I was approached by the Unicorn Theatre, London (our co-producers), to make a new play based on the collection of stories we know as The One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights. These stories began as folk tales from the oral traditions of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, India, Persia and Mesopotamia. They were first written down as collections by unknown authors around 1,200 years ago. It was a daunting prospect as there are hundreds and hundreds of stories.
On reading over 1,500 pages of the original texts, it became clear that they were more than the fanciful stories I remembered from Disney films. These stories – stories about stories, and stories within stories – seemed to have a magical power to make sense of our complex world, often exploring themes of war, exile, journey, lost loves, longing and loneliness and reunification. Thinking about how alive these stories have been for hundreds of years, how they have time travelled and crossed countries, how they have constantly evolved, been changed and remade by storytellers, writers, film and theatre makers, it seemed fitting to make our own version.
Why do you think the Arabian Nights folk tales have captured the imaginations of so many over the years?
They are so magical, surprising and touching. When you read them they’re real page turners, because they are unpredictable and very inventive. They have these brilliant flights of imagination contained within them.
What is unique about your version of the tales?
This is a devised show, which means we had no ‘script’ when we began rehearsals. We started by asking: ‘What do these stories mean to us today?’ Ours is a modern take, set in the contemporary world of a UK city. There’s still Shahrazad, telling rather amazing stories of kings, viziers and jinns – only this time she’s not trying to save herself from execution but is instead using storytelling as a means to make sense of her turbulent world. Forced to leave her beloved mother behind in her native Damascus, she flees with her father to the UK, only to be faced with an unfamiliar city, culture and language. This time, Shahrazad’s stories aren’t what keeps her safe but what keeps her going.
In her loneliness and isolation, our Shahrazad makes friends with a neighbour by re-enacting stories that transcend language and cultural barriers. Using saucepans for crowns, old pipes for a magical telescope and an old mop for a magic carpet, the pair tell their tales.
What are the challenges/rewards of creating theatre for younger audiences?
The challenges are the same as those of making work for adults; creating clear and engaging storytelling that enriches one’s life. With younger audiences you have to be perhaps a little more rigorous because if the work’s not engaging or relevant you WILL know. The exciting thing is their response is immediate and voiced. It’s rewarding to be able to plant beautiful ideas in young minds.
Can you talk a little about the experience of producing Twas the Night Before Christmas at Unicorn Theatre?
That was a real challenge because the age group was so young and I really wanted to introduce that audience to some complex aspects of what it means to be Father Christmas! I got very excited by what he has to achieve in one night, we got a bit nerdy and delved into the science of Santa! It was a lot of fun and I really feel in love with Christmas all over again.
What surprises or delights you about how little ones respond to live performances?
Young audiences are thrilling because there’s little cynicism, or censorship of the imagination. Theatre is about the power of the collective imagination. With adults you have to get over a few hurdles to get their imaginations working, whereas children are more inherently ‘game’ from the outset. If what you’re doing is honest and truthful they’re really up for the journey and they’ll go anywhere.
What inspired you to set up Transport?
I wanted to make work that had a socio/political core that placed ‘hidden voices’ at the centre of performance and that entertained audiences. And I wanted this work to tour regionally. This was easier to achieve with my own company. I also wanted to create a sense of ensemble and develop a language with company members – sustaining continuity in the work.
What have been the highlights for Transport so far?
Each project has been a voyage, we have met new audiences, worked with new venues and discovered much about the theatre community throughout England. It’s been thrilling to move and inspire people, often happening in unexpected places. I’ve learnt a lot about my own country by touring.
Any advice for people who want to work in this field?
It’s hard work. If there’s anything else that you can do and enjoy doing, do that instead. If making theatre is the only thing you can do and want to do, then do that. It’s tough, especially with shrinking financial support.
What’s next on the cards?
We’re going to devise a new piece for adults about the sea, it’s based on our residencies in Kent and India! It will tour early 2015. We’re also going to make a new piece for young adults which we’re developing with The Egg theatre in Bath.
And finally, why should families come to see this show?
I’m going to quote a young reviewer of the show from last year, “1001 Nights is a very compelling story of family and friendship that has enough imagination to win over its younger audience and has enough heart and nostalgia to win over the older audience. If this does not warm your heart then I don’t know what will”!
1001 Nights at Unicorn Theatre, 147 Tooley St, SE1 2HZ (London Bridge tube) from Jun 5-22. 11am (Tue, Wed, Fri), 1.30pm (Thu), 11am & 2pm (Sat & Sun), £10-£16, recommended for ages 6+