A powerful new drama based on a radical adaptation of the allegorical animal fables Kalila wa Dimna – one of the masterpieces of Eastern culture. Originally intended as a book of Council for Kings, literally a “mirror” for princes, these subtle and philosophical animal fables retain immense significance to all sections of Arab and Persian society to this day. Originating in India, the stories travelled to Persia before reaching the Arab world where they were turned into political dynamite at the pen of Ibn Al-Muqaffa, court scribe, wit and radical reformer – an act that was to cost him his life. The production locates Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s work in its original historical context – Iraq circa 750 AD and the dawn of the Abbasid revolution – one of the most turbulent moments in Islamic history, a period of Imperial expansion, pre-emptive strikes and the savage threat of civil war and a golden age of Arab culture.
Part political fable, part historical epic, the drama explores the creation of these tales amidst the very real tragedy that unfolds around the author himself, as Al-Muqaffa battles for reform in the midst of fervent revolutionaries, heretic poets, religious propagandists, and a ruler who names himself none other than “God’s shadow on earth”. A startling combination of text, multi-media and a live musical score, this modern theatrical fable is a timely exploration of the mechanics of Empire and the narratives of power, providing a passionate argument for cultural and religious tolerance in the modern Arab and Western worlds.
Performed in English with Arabic surtitles
Written and Directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam
Script Editor: Georgina Van Welie
Set, Costume & Video Design: Julia Bardsley
Lighting Design: Chahine Yavroyan
Composer and Musical Director: Lewis Gibson
Performers: Nigel Barrett, Michelle Bonnard, Ben Boorman,Kammy Darweish, Neil Edmond, Mark Jax, Simon Kane, Nicholas Khan, Matthew Parish
Musicians: Lewis Gibson, Alfredo Genovesi
Assistant Director: Nigel Barrett
Production Manager: Dom Martin
Company Stage Manager: Vicky Berry
Assistant Stage Manager: Ben Boorman
Design Assistant: Philippa Van Welie
Casting Director: Hannah Miller
Surtitles Director: Wafaa Al-Fraheen
Developed over several phases of research and development workshops, the piece opened as a workshop production in the Barbican’s Pit theatre, London in May 2005 and played in Kuwait.
Championed by the Barbican and the Tokyo International Arts Festival, it developed into the full production in 2006, playing again in Kuwait and touring to Bahrain; Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan as part of the Tokyo International Arts Festival; Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; Barbican, London as part of bite06 and The Oxford Playhouse, UK.
The events of this play take place in the period between the dawn of the Abbasid Revolution (750 AD) and the murder of Ibn Al-Muqaffa (circa 759-762 AD). We are, therefore, at the very beginning of the creation of an Empire that was to last for almost four centuries. The famous heights of luxury and intellectual prowess achieved during the period of Harun Al-Rasheed are still nothing more than ideas on the distant horizon (Al-Rasheed was Al-Mansour’s grandson). The period dealt with here is one marked by great internal turmoil as the rulers jockey for power, settling their scores within the Abbasid line as the momentum of the revolution turns itself upon both its fathers and children.
The play is, on the surface, an historical one, but there are a number of contemporary concerns that I have tried to address through it. Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s fate, far from being confined to the comfortable realms of dramatic metaphor, is one that awaits to this day – in varying degress of cruelty – writers, thinkers and journalists at odds with authority in many parts of the Middle East. Furthermore, Iraq is once again today a theatre that witnesses the birth pains and death throes of Empires. All Empires need stories; and as our modern-day ‘Colossus’ takes hold of this region, toppling and restructuring many regimes that were, in their turn, put in place by the waning Imperial powers of less than a century ago, this play is an exploration of the relationship between power and its narratives.
Whilst there is nothing in scripture or Islamic theology to censor dramatic or written portrayals of history, there remains a powerful undercurrent of religious and cultural conservatism in the Arab world. As such, I realised that if this work were produced in Arabic, the odds were that it would be denied a stage life. So I chose to present it in English.
In its form, canopy of characters and narrative shape, the play has an obvious debt to Shakespeare, whilst the language is inspired by the vigour and muscularity gleaned from the original Arab sources (Al-Tabari, Al-Jahashiyari). Through writing it in English I hope to add a small pinch of ‘mental benzine’ to that area of inter-cultural dialogue, which allows for a keener perception of Self through the eyes of the Other.
Sulayman Al-Bassam, 2006