Thursday, April 16, 2009

arabian nights in translation and on the stage

Theater and new translation revive ‘The Arabian Nights’
by Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette 6 April 2009

The fact that two major theatrical projects related to “The Arabian Nights” are storming ahead, is proof of the enduring vitality of this great treasure-chest of tales as a source of creative inspiration. Director Tim Supple [pictured] of London-based Dash Arts has recently announced his plan to embark on a tour of North Africa, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf, Iran, India (and possibly Iraq) this month to prepare for a new production of “The Arabian Nights.”

At the same time, the Royal Shakespeare Company has announced that over Christmas, it is to stage a reworked version of the acclaimed production of “Arabian Nights” first devised by Dominic Cooke at the Young Vic theater in 1998. That production subsequently toured the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, Dublin and New York.

During his forthcoming tour of the Arab world, India and Iran, Supple will sample the work of local performers from storytellers, actors, and dancers to singers and acrobats. They will eventually be brought together in a production of no set length or form. “We are trying to create a theatrical version of ‘The Arabian Nights’ which will do justice to the scale, depth and richness of the stories,” Supple told the Guardian newspaper.

Dominic Cooke too will draw on the skills of artists from a variety of disciplines. His production of “Arabian Nights” will include song, dance, puppetry and illusion. The RSC promises that the cast of 18 “will paint a dazzling array of stories and characters.”

Cooke is the artistic director of the Royal Court Theater in London. In his commission for the RSC, he will expand and develop his original version of “Arabian Nights” for the RSC’s Courtyard Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon. Performances will run from Dec. 5 this year until the end of January in 2010.

Tim Supple brings to “The Arabian Nights” project the experience he acquired when devising a stunning Indian version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which harnessed the talent of actors, dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and acrobats from across India and Sri Lanka. Rehearsals of “The Arabian Nights” will start next year, and the premiere is due to be held at the Luminato festival in Toronto in June 2011. The production will come to the UK the following autumn as part of the Dash Arts Arabic series. In planning the production, Supple is collaborating with the London-based Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, who spent last summer reading all the tales in Arabic.

News of the two theatrical projects comes at a time when interest in this compendium of stories is running particularly high, thanks to Penguin’s recent publication of a new translation. The translation, titled “The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights”, was undertaken by Malcolm C. Lyons with Ursula Lyons. Malcolm Lyons is a former Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge, while Ursula Lyons is an Emeritus Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, specializing in modern Arabic literature.
“The Arabian Nights: tales of 1,001 Nights” is the first translation of the full version of the stories in Arabic – which was published in Calcutta between 1839 and 1842 – since that undertaken by the explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, published in ten volumes in the 1880s. The editor and annotator of the new translation, Robert Irwin, says the new rendering “corrects Burton’s errors in translation, as well as superseding his archaic and ugly prose style.”

Penguin has published the new translation as a handsome boxed set of three volumes - each of some 1,000 pages - at a princely price tag of £125. Each volume has an introduction by Robert Irwin, the author of several key works related to the Arab world including “The Arabian Nights: A Companion.”

Penguin has also published a £9.99 “taster” in the form of a small 169-page hardback which contains the Prologue to the “Arabian Nights” and three of the stories: “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves Killed by a Slave Girl”, “Judar and his Brothers,” and “Ma’ruf the Cobbler.”

The prologue tells the famous story of how King Shahrivar takes revenge for his wife’s adultery on all women by deflowering a virgin each night and killing her next day. This continues for three years until the vizier is unable to find another virgin for the king and fears the king’s wrath. The vizier’s extremely well-read daughter Shahrazad insists - against her father’s wishes - on marrying the king herself. She gets her sister Dunyazad, positioned beneath the marital bed, to ask her to tell a story. Night after night Shahrazad will use her gift for storytelling to keep the king hooked until the next night, thereby postponing her death. Ultimately, the king will spare her.

The core of the Arabic stories probably originated in ancient India. They were translated from Sanskrit to Persian some time before the ninth century, and it is likely that some Persian tales were added.
An Arabic version of the stories was in circulation by the ninth century, although it seems that the earliest surviving manuscript of the “Thousand and One Nights” dates from the 15th century.

In the early 18th century the French Orientalist Antoine Galland translated into French the oldest existing manuscript, and added a translation of a manuscript of the Sindbad stories. Some other stories (including “Ali Baba”) were relayed to him by a Lebanese Christian. The translations were very popular with French courtiers and intellectuals, and Galland’s translation was in turn translated into English and other languages.

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, the Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, Greet Jan van Gelder praises the quality of the new Penguin translation and says it “ought to become the standard one for the present century.” He finds it fitting that it appears in time for the 1,200th anniversary of the death of the fifth Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, whose fictional persona appears in so many of the “Arabian Nights” stories.

The Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif is not as keen on the translation as some reviewers, describing it in the Times newspaper as “a workable and honest translation, but not a sparkling one. And it makes me wish that the reader could access the original material.” She suggests that perhaps the “Arabian Nights” were never meant to be read, and are best suited to sessions with a storyteller.

It is likely that the forthcoming “Arabian Nights” theatrical productions of Dominic Cooke and Tim Supple will capture something of the flavor of the oral storytelling traditions that first nurtured the stories, punctuated by music and other diversions.

below, Tim Supple's Indian production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

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