As National Tell a Story Week begins, Timothy Ramsden reviews The Arabian Nights.
So, where did Scheherezade get those thousand-plus stories from? Bill Mitchell directs Jeff Young's version of The Arabian Nights in a co-production between Nottingham Playhouse's Roundabout company and Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre. He sets the tales in a port. Noting the similarities between the Sindbad narrative and the Odyssey he sees the stories both as travellers' tales and a metaphor for the way a community can heal itself. Being the Grand Vizier's daughter, Scheherezade is the one woman immune from becoming the slighted Sultan's wife and paying with her head. But she volunteers to marry him, then collects stories - which appear before us - from the port workers.
Most Arabian Nights tales are about ordinary folk, Mitchell says. "They are all chinks of humanity smuggled by Scheherezade into the palace. Each story cheers the Sultan a bit so he may not execute his wife. And these stories have a depth that resonates in the mind." (Including the modern playwright's mind - Ayckbourn's recent The Champion of Paribanou draws on the tale of three brothers' rivalry in love, also seen in Mitchell's production).
This combines with an attractive simplicity so that stories a mere page long can open mighty themes. The tale of a fisherman who unleashes then imprisons a murderous genie reflects on bullying (the genie towers over the frightened fisherman) and the use of power.
Mitchell finds comedy, cruelty, sadness, love and vulgarity in the tales, with a fine balance of the comic and tragic. Kneehigh Theatre has a strong Cornish flavour although its productions offer universal myths; the same mix of the universal truth in the localised story can be seen in traditional tales such as The Arabian Nights, says Mitchell.
They require a particular approach from actors. In this Mitchell agrees with Gerry Mulgrew, director of Scotland's Communicado Theatre and their current Arabian Nights (making a grand total of two thousand and two nights currently on the road).
"We invent characters from things that are tangible, a kind of walk, a rhythm or activity," declares Mitchell. "Action is paramount, characters' psychology is of less interest when rehearsing," says Mulgrew. "Each story dictates its own pace".
Communicado's director talks first of a moral to each story, then changes the term, saying each has a "wry purpose". So the Sindbad stories question whether it is better to stay at home or voyage recklessly. These stories were originally told, not read, and storytellers might well have had theatrical tones and gestures. There is a link between the storyteller and the theatre company creating imaginary events out of words or a bare space.
Both directors insist their production is not just for children; all ages can have imaginations stimulated, each taking from the tale what they find most helpful while lapping up the delight in the story.
And that is abundant in both productions, The Nottingham show offering a series of breathtaking images, Communicado a bravura production from its first moments - not the tale of Scheherezade, but a kind of prologue with the story of a bag that gets passed from hand to hand. Sheer speed and accuracy are astounding.
Mulgrew opens with that tale because he believes the bag's voyage through many hands mirrors the maze of tales to come. Mitchell speaks of his liking for intricate Chinese-box style stories, each title enclosing another. Again, it's the mix of the simple and the complex that makes the story of Scheherezade, and her many tales, ready to provide nourishment for the imagination of generations to come. TR Communicado tours Scotland until May 17 (0131 624 4040); Kneehigh tours south-west England between May 28 and August 2 (01872 223159)