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An Arabian Morning

Published 26 November 2012

In a rehearsal room in West London, sun streaming through the great glass walls, a group of performers has just been asked to “take a different urination shape”. I didn’t expect to hear that today.

The actors, the stars of the Tricycle theatre’s Christmas production of The Arabian Nights, are unfazed, contorting with peeing aplomb. It’s amazing how many varied positions they create, legs cocked in every direction. Some stretch the boundaries of physics, to be honest.

Don’t let me lead you down an Arabian garden path. This is but one small moment of one small section of this festive family show. The production, I expect, won’t be full of actors pretending to be bladder-emptying bunnies. I hadn’t mentioned the rabbit part, had I? Add that to your image, throw in a room with racks of costumes and tables of eclectic props pushed up against the walls and you’re close to where I find myself this morning.

I’ve been privileged enough to sneak into this rehearsal just long enough to see a dance sequence get swiftly, decisively and creatively reconstructed. A decision has been made to chop the music, tightening everything up, so the movement has to follow.

What’s most surprising is that, having spent 10 minutes talking to me about the production – the second in Indhu Rubasingham’s new rein at the influential Kilburn venue – director Lu Kemp might be the quietest person in the room. While choreographer Anne Lee puts the cast, who are all eager to chip in with their own ideas, through their paces, and actor Tunji Falana punctuates each piece of action and discussion with a new snippet of song, Kemp perches barefoot on a chair at the side of the room like a wise owl gazing down from a treetop vantage point, quietly soaking up the ideas and dramatic evolution, feeling the need to speak out only once.

“I pick my companies,” she told me prior to rehearsal, “around not just their talents as actors, but what they creatively bring to the table, so we tend to work very collaboratively in the room.” She’s not wrong. The finished version of the dance – at least, the version that appears to be finished when I regretfully take my leave – is packed with ideas that originated from this very international company.

The cast, which includes a Hungarian, a Basque and a Zimbabwean, reflects the multiculturalism of The Arabian Nights text, which, though it originated in West and South Asia and North Africa, was augmented and added to in European translations. Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba were all latter additions to the folk stories that are collected together in the tale of a new Queen using storytelling to avoid the fate of her breath-deficient predecessors.

I suspect that, unlike The Arabian Nights cast, Queen Scheherazade didn’t warm up every night to the pop country stylings of Dolly Parton’s Nine To Five or draw inspiration from Eminem’s Lose Yourself, not least because she’d be separated from the modern musicians by a handful of centuries. She managed fine without them, but just sitting watching the performers limber up I feel invigorated. Not enough to join in, mind you, but enough to feel the urge to.

I wonder if the writers of these fantastical, adventure-packed tales ever thought that, in years to come, performers would use deliberately bad modern dance to bring their story to the stage? Probably not. That said, they probably never considered that their tales would be brought together under the umbrella of a book about the power of storytelling. “Structurally, The Arabian Nights is brilliant,” Kemp enthuses. “Because Scheherazade doesn’t ever want to get to the end of the story, characters within the story start telling stories themselves. It’s like a series of Russian dolls where one story opens another story opens another story…”

“Think of your mother,” Lee orders with mock earnestness as the cast wave arms and lunge around the circular stage that dominates the room. “I love modern dance,” she explains, “but sometimes it’s done badly and it’s fun.”

If there was one word to describe the rehearsal room, that would be it. Fun. Before the cast even knew who I was – or possibly because they were unaware I was an infiltrating journalist – they were eager to say hello and welcome me in. Despite always being engaged with the serious process of creation, laughter is never far from their lips. If even half the enjoyment that they’re having in preparing the production makes it into the hearts of audiences at the Tricycle theatre this winter, the new Artistic Director will have another hit on her hands.

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