Preview: Arabian Nights

Matthew Badham talks to musician Arun Ghosh about providing a suitable soundtrack for an unconventional piece of Christmas theatre

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This year’s seasonal offering from Manchester’s Library Theatre Company is Arabian Nights, based on One Thousand And One Nights, a collection of Arabic stories. These tales had been passed down over hundreds of years by merchants and traders travelling across the Middle East, North Africa and India before finally being written down and subsequently translated into English in the 18th century.

“It’s a fantastic choice for a big, seasonal piece,” suggests Arabian Nights musical director Arun Ghosh. “It’s not the kind of play people expect you to put on at Christmas, but I think it works as a cosmopolitan production that has a very strong, positive message.”

This stage adaptation presents seven of the stories from One Thousand And One Nights alongside the framing narrative, in which a young queen, Shahrazad, attempts to forestall execution. Her husband has decided that the only way to ensure his wives remain faithful is to have them beheaded the day after he marries them. Shahrazad tells a story every night, but neglects to finish it so that the king’s curiosity to find out what happens next forces him to let her live another day.

“Shahrazad is living on her wits,” says Ghosh. “The message is that creativity and stories are part of what makes life worthwhile. Christmas is a fantastic time for storytelling and these stories are some of the best.”

Ghosh’s role in the show has been to compose a soundtrack that he will perform live. The musician has a history of working as a composer and musical director, having previously been part of productions at theatres such as the Royal Exchange and Salisbury Playhouse.

“The live nature of the soundtrack [for Arabian Nights] allows me to be part of the story. I can respond to the actors and the characters they’re portraying. The rehearsal process is about getting the performance polished so that it’s not changing in any really significant way, but each night is always going to be slightly different. The moment an actor chooses to say their line, or make a move, or the tempo at which a dance starts, is all about the energy of that particular performance.”

If he could, Ghosh would always work this way.

“In an ideal world, I think I would play all my soundtracks live. When I do have to record them, it’s second best and you have to put a lot of effort in to somehow make it feel real. But this is real. I’m going to be there at the side of the stage and sometimes even coming on and joining the actors.

“There’s a sequence where a servant girl performs a dagger dance as part of her attempts to trick a criminal. And I feel quite present in that. I’m there on stage, playing and almost spurring her on.”

Representing her emotional narrative through music, perhaps?

“Yes, yes. That’s definitely it.”

The music also sets the tone of each story.

“[These include] a circus-type story where I use the accordion, a horror story with spooky music and Sinbad, which has an almost Pirates Of The Caribbean-style soundtrack. I’ve always loved music and always listened to lots of different kinds, and so I’ve used a variety of approaches and styles. For example, in a story called How Abu Hassan Broke Wind, I’ve got something that sounds like brass band music because it seems to fit. My soundtrack creates worlds for the stories to live in.”

Ultimately, Ghosh’s music should complement but not overshadow a set of stories that he thinks will appeal to almost every type of audience member.

“There’s always been cruelty and deception and hope, and people who are brave and go on adventures. These are things that are part of the human condition. We talk about Shakespeare representing all people and all times. These stories do too. They’re universal.”

Arabian Nights is at the Lowry in Salford until 12 January 2013

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