Today we return to the Jamaa - it is a very different place in the day time. We meet a man who works with monkeys, a cousin of Lahcen's who says he can set us up with some story-tellers. We wait and wait. Glass after glass of mint tea, and our first tagine. Noah is less patient than us (though the tagine occupies him for a time) and would rather wander off or play with a snake but as our patience is running out they arrive. Only to tell us to return tomorrow when they will then tell us a story and talk about the traditions of the halqa. Our interest piqued we promise to return tomorrow and head back to the hotel (in a horse-drawn carriage, as you do). Waiting around are things I suspect we may have to get used to in Morocco.

Lahcen is more philosophical about it all and says the square recognised that we were tired and should come back tomorrow. 'You're not able to listen yet.' There is a strong vein of the fatalistic running through the fabric of Morocco which is something I'll need to come to terms with given my love of efficiency and punctuality. So when it happens will be the right time. And now to bed.


Jamaa El Fna

After a remarkably stress free journey - heeding the advice of other mums I breastfed Noah through take off and landing and he slept for pretty much the entire three hour flight - we arrive in Marrakech in the early evening. After some haggling over a car with an entirely unofficial car-hire 'guy' we drive into the new town of Marrakech to a hotel where the Moroccan actor (and major star) Said Bey is staying, who manages to negotiate a 50% discount. Said is an old friend of Lahcen's and can hopefully facilitate several connections and conversations with other artists in Morocco. Serendipitously he is also fascinated by the story-tellers and the oral storytelling traditions of Morocco and we start exploring with him what this show might eventually be, over a pot of mint tea in a local cafe. We had known before we flew that whatever HALQA becomes there will be mint tea involved, in the show itself, not simply its creation - and it feels apt that our first exchange takes place over a glass of the super sweet, super hot concoction.

After discussing the meaning of the word 'Halqa' used to described the circle of audience that forms around a storyteller (and also snake-charmer, musician, acrobat etc) we headed off to the Jemaa El Fna - one of Morocco's most well-known landmarks and now a world heritage site - to see the Halqa in action. It's an intense experience, a cacophany of drums, hawkers, orange juice sellers and street food vendors, a mass of humanity crammed together in this huge public square where for hundreds of years story-tellers have spun their tales alongside acrobats and snake charmers. Noah has a field day, of course. I think Morocco suits him.

We don't expect to meet a master storyteller on our first night in Morocco - the rise of TV and radio, coupled with the rising sound levels in the Jemaa - have led to a huge decline in oral storytelling - and if we are to find some genuine story-tellers while we are here we will have to hunt them out. But after our evening in the Jemaa we now at least have a little understanding of the circle, of the halqa, as well as a new-found friend in Morocco's answer to Brad Pitt - Said Bey.

Debrief Dinner

Last night our costume Designer Kate Lane cooked us an amazing vegan feast and we had a debrief of the R&D showing and process so far. Kate also has a (not so) little one and we had Noah with us so what with kids and getting stuck into the feast itself we didn't get down to the de-brief part til 10pm-ish. Lots of exciting ideas for moving forwards - Filipe the Sound Designer has got some brilliant ideas about putting wireless contact speakers inside the copper pots that (as predicted) have become a huge feature of the show, essentially turning each one into its own resonating generator of sound. And so when the mouths of the pots were turned towards the audience the sounds would be louder. Really exciting and something to explore next month when we hope to have another R&D day. The big debate of the day was how to incorporate the scientific content in voiceover form as to be clear and convey the science 'story' of the piece without becoming either a lecture or a distraction from the complexity and richness of the visual narrative. Tricky. I don't think we've solved it yet but now I have to go away and write up an updated narrative and sound-script structure, and I'm sure that will throw up a whole load more questions. But what with the business part of the evening starting so late, before we knew it the clock was almost striking 12 and so we had to dash for last buses and tubes.


So after an all too brief six days of play on the floor and in the air we showed around 30 minutes of material to a very friendly audience of venues, programmers and some of our scientific collaborators today. I can't believe we made so much in such a short time - of course not all of it will be kept for the future but the finished show is only going to be 60 minutes. Very encouraging. As was the great response we had to the work - I think it was a bit abstract for some people, but we didn't have our sound designer - the wonderful Filipe Gomes - around to really establish the narrative through the soundscape (which will be a big part of the finished piece) and we really focused on finding the physical vocabularies rather than exploring the narrative and the characters (which again will be crucial to the show but lets not run before we can walk). And our amazing photographer Richard Davenport came in and took some shots of it - which with the help of literally two expertly placed lights (thanks Will) and Kate's gorgeous (and very finished looking) costumes will look rather lovely I think. And in true Metta style baby Noah joined us for the post-show discussion which meant that somewhat without thinking I spent most of it fielding complex scientific questions whilst breastfeeding. Classic.

Research & Development Week

Today we started our process of R&D for the show and I'm really excited already about what we're generating. I say we - I mostly just sit there in awe of the three performers who manage to perform the most amazing physical feats with such grace and poise. I think it is helpful though to have me there as an outside eye, as Shreya the choreographer, is also performing. But I feel exhausted and I'm not the one leaping and lunging and lifting and all the rest, so god knows how they're all feeling! They're working so hard to genuinely respond to the interview material which we have playing on a loop (so after a while we all got a bit mad hearing the same clips) and it's amazing the detail and the beauty of what's being created, though probably by the time it's in front of an audience the scientific content won't be so transparent. We shall have to see how much people read into the visual and gestural language at the showing next week. Can't wait to carry on again tomorrow though - and start playing with our lovely copper pots - and even early bits of costume (what a luxury). And from Sunday we're in Circus Space so we can begin to explore the silks and translate more of the very specific gestural Indian classical dance vocabulary onto the aerial equipment. I have this idea of turning a red silk (which for us represents the arsenic contaminated well water) into a wedding sari and the protagonist of the piece Asha performing a wedding dance while it still being attached to the ceiling. Let's see whether it works...

Workshop Audition

Just got home from a very exciting morning at English Touring Theatre - who in their loveliness as our mentors provide us with free rehearsal and audition space when they can. So we've just been auditioning around a dozen of the country's top aerialists/dancers for the forthcoming Research & Development week for WELL. The session was mostly led by Shreya Kumar, our Choreographer for the show, who taught everyone a short sequence of fusion contemporary and Indian Classical dance. Stunning as that was we then got some of them to translate that onto an aerial hoop. We also got them to try and balance a copper pot (sourced from Southall only yesterday, thank you Will) on their heads - which I think may well become a recurring motif of the show. It was so exciting to see the beginnings of what we might make for the piece and also to meet so many amazing performers. Plus this is our first collaboration with Shreya so a great opportunity to see how we might work together over the months to come. And I'd like to think the addition of a 10 month old baby toddling around the rehearsal room also gave the auditionees both an insight into the way we we work at Metta (i.e. in a very open-door fashion) and also made for a more relaxing environment.

Our First Interview

Today we started the interview process for WELL. We're talking to a whole range of scientists, development economists and specialists in arsenic and the contamination of groundwater. Our main scientific collaborator and partner on the project is the eminent and lovely Professor Stuart Reynolds who is in fact Will's dad, and has been teaching students at Bath Uni about the problems of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh for the last 10 years. What a coincidence! In fact it was Stuart who sparked our interest in the project in the first place. So we whipped out our fancy new microphone and began - sat round the kitchen table - exploiting nap time to avoid additional comments from our 9 month old baby. As a seasoned lecturer of over 35 years Stuart is wonderfully eloquent - and dare I say it - poetic speaker and I'm really excited about incorporating the recordings into the eventual soundscape and musical score for the full production. And baby Noah stayed asleep for the duration!

Flicker - Research

Here are links to some of the research that helped us develop the opera.

Locked-in syndrome: a review of 139 cases

Pressure Volume Curves of the Respiratory System

Scientists seek to help Locked In man speak

Life can be worth living in locked-in syndrome

We also read the following books which provided a great (non-scientific background)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique-Bauby - the book that inspired FLICKER in the first place - beautifully written and powerful memoir about the experiences of having Locked In Syndrome written entirely by Jean blinking his left eyelid.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes - a surprisingly un-sentimental novel about the relationship between a young man who becomes paraplegic after a motorbike accident and his carer.

opening night

opening night

By Poppy

Last night we opened Flicker to an almost sold-out house in the Lilian Baylis Studio of Sadler's Wells. Despite a madly busy day - whose idea was it to have only a day in the space with a huge amount of sound, lighting and video to tech (over 100 video cues in a 55 minute opera) - it was a resounding success. Everyone from funders, to the patients & staff who have contributed to the project and even the random audience members with no connection to the production or to Metta all loved it and found it simultaneously a huge insight into Locked In Syndrome and the work of the RHN and also a profoundly moving and emotionally engaging performance.

So Will was possibly the most stressed of all of us with his several hundred cues and a somewhat recalcitrant set of computers to work from, however everything came together smoothly - if last-minutedly and everyone commented on how beautiful and powerful the video was and how much it added to the performance.

Both Jon and I were slightly shell shocked and I think it will take a few days to process fully how it all went - a surreal experience to have just three days rehearsal and end up presenting something so polished (not quite the concert performance we had originally imagined back in 2011). But we couldn't have wished for a better showcase for the work - the singers were extraordinary, the band under the masterful conducting of Andrew Gourlay were sublime and the actor - our good friend and god mother to our son Noah - Loren O'Dair was astonishing in her portrayal of the Locked In character Iris - communicating so much literally just with the movement of her eyes.




By Jon

We've been rehearsing 'Flicker' for a couple of days with the full orchestra, the singers, conductor Andrew Gourlay. The RHN have allowed us to rehearse at the hospital, in their wonderful Assembly Room; the patients and staff have been dropping in out of the rehearsals all week, and it feels as if our work's become a real feature of life here, if only for a while – it's lovely to hear the singers' voices echoing down the long Victorian corridors.

After a small crisis occasioned by the delivery of an F-sharp crotale rather than an F-natural one, it's thrilling to hear the piece come to life with such terrific performers. Everyone's working extremely hard, from Andrew's meticulous work on the score, to Will's marshalling of his small army of laptops as he develops the video projections, to Loren's beautifully controlled performance as the 'real' Iris, while Poppy zooms on and off the stage giving directing notes whenever Andrew stops the musicians. The hospital have incredibly generously lent us a bed and wheelchair, which they've custom-fitted with a light-writer for us, which makes a huge difference to the realism of what we're presenting.

I'm still making a few final changes to the score (now I've heard it played live), but really just minor adjustments to the orchestration; overall I'm very pleased with how it's sounding, and as always am overwhelmed by the privilege of having my music played by wonderful musicians. I think we're all feeling quite confident about the performance at Sadler's Wells now, and we're really looking forward to putting the piece in front of a live audience – tomorrow!


Finishing/not finishing

Finishing/not finishing


By Jon

I've finished! Or at least that's what I've been going round telling everyone; in fact I've just finished setting the vocal lines and the harmonies, having in the process pushed Poppy's near saint-like patience almost to the limit with my repeated texts and emails asking if we can shave yet another couple of syllables off a line.

I've now got to orchestrate the opera for our five-piece band, and have got about 4 weeks to do it before I have to send the completed score to our conductor Andrew Gourlay, the vocal part to the singers and the instrumental parts to Aurora.

I've made a chart on my studio wall with the total number of bars in the opera (1341), and the number of days left before the deadline, and I've worked out I need to orchestrate at least 123 bars a day to keep on top of things. So far I'm just about managing to do it, thanks in no small part to my assistant Fran, who's input all my manuscript material into Sibelius (a software notation programme), which has saved me a huge amount of time. Once I've (eventually) finished that and sent the score to Andrew, I'll need to go through it again, this time reducing the instrumental version to a keyboard and voice arrangement that we can work with in rehearsal with Aurora's fantastic repetiteur John Reid for a couple of days before the other musicians arrive.

Very excited now the performance at Sadler's Wells has been confirmed, and very much looking forward to hearing it played live by such fantastic musicians.


Baghdad - Late 1970s

Baghdad - Late 1970s

Baghdad. Late 1970s. I would come back from my primary school, eat lunch and have a siesta before waking up to watch cartoons. This was my daily routine as a six year old. I still remember that upon waking up I had to wear socks before turning the TV on. For some reason I couldn’t bear the idea of watching cartoons without socks on. Maybe I thought the cartoon characters could see me and they would disapprove of my naked feet.

Most of the cartoons were Japanese imports dubbed into Arabic. The cartoon that stands out in my memory is the adventures of Sindbad. Unlike the Sindbad of the one thousand and one nights, the cartoon version was a young boy with some kind of bird pet for company. There was one particular episode that I found equally fascinating and frightening. It was the episode where Sindbad meets an old man that asks to climb on his back so he may cross a river. However once the old man has his legs wrapped firmly around Sindbad’s neck he refuses to descend and Sindbad has to carry him everywhere. The old man metamorphoses into a scary looking goat. Eventually Sindbad gets the old man-slash-goat to drink some wine and by making him drunk, he gets rid of him.

When I was approached by director Poppy Burton- Morgan to select a story from the one thousand and one nights and use it to write something about the Arab Spring, I knew immediately that I wanted to use the story of Sindbad and the old goat. I read the original version and was surprised how violent and weird it was. In my version, Sindbad is a young man who flees his country in search of a job. He boards a boat that he hopes would smuggle him into Italy. But the boat is caught in a storm and Sindbad is shipwrecked and that’s when he meets a radical preacher that has been exiled by the tyrant that rules Sindbad’s country. This meeting has terrifying consequences for Sindbad.

Young, secular Arabs were the fuel behind the revolutions that swept through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. However on the back of their success, Islamists parties have come to power. This is largely down to the fact that as opposition figures, the Islamist parties were the most organised and connected to the masses. There is a prevalent belief that Islam is the answer to the woes of the Arab world. The big question now is whether the Arab spring is going to turn into an Islamists winter.
It is certainly possible that these new governments might enforce regressive laws particularly in relation to women’s rights. However, that is not the only possible outcome. When I was researching my play the Prophet (which was shown at the gate theatre during the summer), I interviewed a member of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood in Cairo who was keen to emphasise the modern face of his organisation. Provided the Islamists parties do not go down the road of rigging elections
then their influence on the political scene might wain as secular parties find their feet in this post dictatorial era.

Sindbad and the old goat is a cautionary tale about the Arab Spring. And so we could all hope that it would never come true.

Hassan Abdulrazzak | Monday November 26th 2012

Arab Nights - Chirine's Letter

Arab Nights - Chirine's Letter


Just one week now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and this week it's the turn of Egyptian storyteller Chirine El Ansary to share her thoughts... This is an open letter to the respectable Egyptian citizen, a father, a mother, an aunt, an uncle... Those who carefully brought us up, with much love indeed.
Those who responsibly scolded us for lying, while meticulously teaching us never to be true to ourselves, explaining over and over again that 'who we truly were' was not acceptable and that in order to become decent members of this decent society we had to be shaped and reshaped, moulded and remoulded to fit in.

The respectable Egyptian citizen, a father, a mother, an aunt, an uncle,
who filled with fear and a destructive-protective instinct, desperately tried convincing us that there was no "way out" or rather that the only "way out" was in fact a "way in" based on permanent denial and everlasting compromise. Denial and compromise until Death comes in.
Not physical Death, but the insidious Death of the soul, the heart, the will...
Whatever you want to call "it".
"It" that makes us unique individuals and keeps us alive.

A few managed to resist.
They made difficult choices and had to bear the consequences : pointed fingers, loneliness, alienation, harassment, accusations of having betrayed their own society, of not being real Egyptians, of being influenced or manipulated. In the mean time, many others, too exhausted to offer more resistance, gave in.
They turned into puppets, reluctantly leading a life in which decisions and choices strengthened a rotten, corrupt system profiting a handful of worthless criminals.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil...and rot...and die.

Kan yama kan,
Once upon a time
There was this lovely very young woman
There was this lovely very young man
She was learned in poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computing,
He was learned in poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computing,
She spoke several languages,
He spoke several languages,
She was and idealist,
He was an idealist,
The One Thousand and One Stories they knew made them want to speak the truth, Become freedom fighters.
They would save their country and change the World!
They were both Shahrazad.
Yes, he was Shahrazad too,
For is it possible to sacrifice a woman without sacrificing a man?

Kan yama kan
Once upon a time
There were all these older experienced good Egyptian citizens
Who knew Wrong from Right
Who knew Evil from Good
Who knew Ugliness from Beauty
They had a strong sense of Morality and had to protect it, no matter what,
Even If it meant the collapse of Integrity and Humanity
Even if it meant turning the hope-filled roads into dead-ends.

Conservatism, Fundamentalism, Wahabism, Salafism, Bla-bla-ism,
So many isms that we like to accuse.
But what about the sweet respectable citizens, who carry no "isms" but nevertheless twisted the truth and accepted the unacceptable?

They who for decades turned a blind eye and a deaf ear on the horrors that were taking place, condemning the few who dared speak,
thus making possible the inconceivable, Snipers
Expired tear gas
Cold blooded murders for Security's sake
Street children turned kid soldiers
Officially approved rapes
Virginity tests they had somehow been silently conducting for years.

Chirine El Ansary | Wednesday November 14th 2012

Arab Nights - Ghalia's Thoughts

Arab Nights - Ghalia's Thoughts

Just two weeks now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and so this week I'm sharing Syrian author and Journalist Ghalia Kabbani's moving thoughts and musings on her contribution to the production...

Ghalia Kabbani | Friday November 9th 2012

How can I express what is happening in Syria through 'One Thousand and One Nights'? This was the question which jumped to my mind after a call from the director Poppy Burton-Morgan to contribute to her play which reflects the atmosphere of the Arab Spring.

Once I started thinking of the proposal, I imagined Scheherazade trapped throughout those years inside the stories, threatening her with death night after night. Does my country Syria not live with this fear daily? Hasn’t every Syrian who lives in Syria been ready to be arrested, tortured and killed at any moment, for decades?

Who says that Scheherazade is destined to continue telling the stories striving to find the time to save herself from her executer? Who says that Syria and the Syrians have to continue to show their false loyalty and live in fear of a hypocritical system, under the influence of a tyrant while the world around them is embracing freedom and democracy?





I am going to write about Syria to free Scheherazade from that historic burden of being a ransom for other women, and so she is going to be my symbol for Syria, who also has to offer her duties as the continuation of loyalty.

Freeing Scheherazade from this daily fear is the symbol of my play. I had to recall all of the metaphors which I had read or heard, and have entered our popular vocabulary, such as when we call a woman who is showing off ‘sitt elhosn' - the lady of beauty” and we use Shahrayar as symbol of control, and the example of  “brave Hassan” to describe a young man who lets no obstacle stand in his way. And let us not forget the stories of the Djinnis and the tales in the palaces (including those of maids and slaves), and whatever else can fill the imagination.

All these are expressions we use in our conversation and proverbs without being aware of their reference back to these tales. Even expressions of love and sex, they are stored in the collective memory, and people believe that they are their own, unaware that they belong to these tales.

Scheherazade and Syria share more than one element in common. There is the oppression and fear and the children Scheherazade bears while she is telling her stories for year after year. With every child she conceives, she suffers, as her child could lose her at any moment. Her children grow up watching their mother living in fear of the daily possibility of death, as every day she searches her imagination for a new tale. So why doesn’t the time come for the turn of her children to free their mother and face up to the tyranny of their father Shahrayar?

Is this not what the children of Syria, in Daraa city, who were arrested did? Some of them were sent back as disfigured corpses to their parents - like Hamza Al Khateeb - whose parents received his corpse with his genitalia removed. “He was trying to rape women!” That was the official reason for killing him. A thirteen year old child was accused of rape because he and his friends wrote on his school wall: “people want to bring down the regime.”

They were only children. Children who were aware of the modern technology of satellites, internet, smart phones, instant news, scandalous photos and the stream of information reaching people despite the control of the regime. Those children watched the Tunisian President Ben Ali and President Mubarak of Egypt falling from power. Since the people there gathered in squares seeking the freedom denied to them for decades, the children of Syria asked: why are our parents suffering quietly from fear every day, and why do they whisper their views? Why don’t they express them loudly? But more importantly - why are they asking their children to do the same thing, teaching them hypocrisy in life! Children brought up to hide their true opinions, repeating at school the slogan that supports the Baath Party, saluting the president’s life ‘He is our leader forever'. After images from Tunisia and Egypt revolutions flooded the country, children of Daraa asked: why does Syria not have a Tahrir Square, a place for revolution?

Perhaps if it was not for the children in Daara and what happened to them, a revolution would not have erupted to ruffle the waters which have remained stagnant for half a century.

To express all of this, I did not want to use one of Scheherazade’s existing stories as a theme, instead I decided to create my own using the style of “the nights”, a story generated from another, with the help of my recollection of tales added to by new thoughts on the current situation in Syria.

I imagine a female writer, Rana, who lives inside the country and wants to work with a group of children to produce a work inspired by “the nights”, she contacts Ayman, her friend who lives in the Diaspora, asking him to provide her with an electronic copy of “the nights” because her Internet is slow and it is not easy to access it through her PC. but Ayman can’t find a valid copy of the stories. So Rana, working from memory and folklore, starts to create her first story about Scheherazade which leads to a story of “Lady of Damascus”, the daughter of a Brocade cloth maker: (a fabric well-known for hundreds of years exported from Syria and worn by the royal families in Europe).

As Jasmine is the symbol of Damascus it occurred to me to have it as the signature of the 'Lady of Damascus' embroidered upon the cloth, just as Brocade is the symbol of the authenticity of Syria’s history.

When the 'Lady of Damascus' is accused of killing her children, it is the unique weaving of brocade, which she has taught her children that saves her. She recognises the shroud she asks for while waiting for her death, is weaved and signed the same way she taught her children, so they prove her innocence years after the Queen of Djinnis has abducted them.

Back to Scheherazade as we see her in the play - bearing three children who grow up while she tells her stories. I thought that it is time for an end to this daily threat of death. The children have grown up with her anxiety every night. So they face their father Shahrayar with their decision: it is their turn now to tell their own stories, they are the new narrators, and they will carry their mother’s burden. It is time for Scheherazade to sleep undisturbed.

Arab Nights - rehearsals

Arab Nights - rehearsals


The rehearsals for Metta Theatre’s upcoming show Arab Nights started last Monday at English Touring Theatre in Waterloo. This was the stage of my work with Metta Theatre that I was most looking forward to, as I love being in rehearsal rooms.

These however are only the second professional rehearsals I have been able to observe and the process was extremely enlightening. It was also a relief to realise that professionals are allowed tea breaks too! The process started with a meet and greet with the company and the cast, and then straight into a read-through of the script, which was being videoed throughout to send to our six authors.

Hearing the script (which is six separate tales) read out loud by the actors and pulled together in its order really made the experience seem real, and the power of the work’s message was clear, even read sitting down in a circle with scripts. The rest of the first day was dedicated mainly to text work, so Poppy and the actors could start discussing how they had responded to the various authors’ plays, as well as getting to know our rehearsal spaces facilities, and working out a mark up, and what props each scene would require.

The next rehearsal I attended was mainly focussed around work on The Tale of The Dictator’s Wife by Tania El Khouri, and was attended by Tania herself. It was interesting for me to watch the three creative components of a play - playwright, director and cast – interacting in one room about the work. Tania told the two actors involved in her piece how she visualised her characters, and described to Poppy and Will the set she imagined for her piece. Poppy and the cast then worked on the movement of this tale. The tale is set on an extremely innovative set of an ipad/bed which the character of the First Lady must manipulate realistically. The session involved quite a lot of everyone in the room lying on the floor with their legs in the air, and I started to understand why actors don’t wear skirts to rehearsals!

I have also been in the rehearsal room while the company worked on one of the most complicated and also most beautiful tales The Tale of the River Brides by Chirine El Ansary. I watched as Poppy and the cast discussed back-stories for the characters and weaved speeches through a megaphone and a drum into a tale set on an aeroplane. I was impressed how simply by the way the actors were placed and how they moved the studio became transformed into what was clearly an aeroplane.

Yesterday Sue Buckmaster, the Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites, who is a leading expert on puppetry, attended rehearsals. She was there to help the cast learn all the rules of her art. I have loved puppetry since I was a small child but have never understood at all how it was achieved. It was almost magical to see how the company and Sue worked together so that what at the beginning looked to me like a book with a scarf round its neck, by the end uncannily evoked the figure of a bent over old man, and how that too could suddenly (with the help of a shoe box) be transformed into a goat!

All in all the rehearsals of Arab Nights so far seem to me to promise an innovative and moving play, with the power to tell a story using in some instances only shoes as both props and characters, and having the opportunity to watch the show develop has been a thrilling experience for me.

Mary Franklin | Tuesday November 6th 2012

Arab Nights - Mary's thoughts

In September I was absolutely thrilled to be offered an opportunity to work in the professional theatre world. I am interning on Metta Theatre’s latest production Arab Nights, which will be at the Soho Theatre from November 21st. My first task was not an unpleasant one, but an invitation to lunch at Will and Poppy’s house (the directors) to meet the cast and company, and lovely baby Noah. Everyone was very friendly and already I felt that I had learned a huge amount about what it actually takes to put together a production.

Since then I have been kept busy with a number of tasks. One of these was working on a timeline of the events of the Arab Spring (which the play is based around) for the freesheet. The events described in the play are such horrific stories I was convinced they were fiction. It was eye opening to realise that things like virginity testing (described in The River Brides) are real life events.

I was also set to work to find a rehearsal space for the company and given a preferred location and budget. This meant travelling around London to view spaces which has been enormously useful for me to find out what is out there and for how much, for later in my career. I also emailed a few people I knew about doing post show discussions and it was wonderful to get such a positive response about the play and its concept.

Every Monday I attend the company Production meeting, which each time manages to be both frighteningly professional and a lot of fun. Having only directed student productions the idea of having people who would actually do your publicity for you is very exciting. This week I had the task which I have possibly enjoyed the most, which was a ‘text reading’ with one of the three actors. I was daunted by this instruction as I wasn’t sure exactly what a ‘text reading’ was and a Google search did not help much. However when I met the actor I confessed I had never done one before and in fact wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, he admitted he was in exactly the same boat so there was no need for my worries. What we did do was read through the text, with me reading the other characters to check his pronunciation was correct. I have frequently found that a play on the page is not only much less powerful than spoken, but hard to read and almost incomprehensible. To hear Arab Nights read out loud, even in a cursory way really gave me an idea of what the production itself will be like, and how resonant and striking the script is.

We go into rehearsals on Monday so I will spend the weekend sourcing as many shoe boxes as possible (the reason will be revealed when you come to see the play) and I am greatly looking forward to being in the rehearsal room, and seeing how Poppy directs the actors. All in all I am immensely grateful to Metta for giving me this chance to see how a play is formed and also for the wonderful experience that is proving.

Mary Franklin | Friday October 26th 2012

research and development

research and development


By Poppy


Today we spent an amazing day at the rehearsal rooms of English Touring Theatre trying out some of the music with the singers. It was especially thrilling for me as I hadn’t heard any of the music until that point - and it’s absolutely stunning. Thankfully the singers also love it, which makes a real difference, and they’re raring to go away and learn it all for January. Of course Jon has to sit down and write it all first! But two of the twelve movements are done and they’re both stunning. We spent the morning working through the pieces purely musically and then in the afternoon began to explore some simple staging ideas and particularly how the character of Iris will be portrayed on stage as she’s played both by an actress and a singer simultaneously. Some good discoveries were made which will stand us in good stead for January and someone from the Wellcome Trust came to observe in the afternoon when we performed a work-in-progress showing of both movements. A nail-biting moment for myself and Jon but she loved it so that’s all good. Now I can’t wait to get started properly on it all in January.




By Jon

It's 5.30 in the morning and I'm in a rather insalubrious B&B in Bath, where I'm composing for some shows at the Theatre Royal whilst doing some work on 'Flicker' in the early part of the day before going in for technical rehearsals. I've spent a long time reading and re-reading the libretto, and asking the ever-patient Poppy if she'd mind changing a few sections and phrases that I think the music won't need. At the moment the score's a fairly random collection of bits of manuscript paper with scraps of vocal melodies and chords, from which I'm pulling together ideas as I start working through the libretto.

When I talked to Julian O'Kelly - the head of music therapy at the RHN - I was very struck by the idea of what music therapists call 'entrained improvisation'. This is a musical process used to establish connections with patients in low-awareness states; the therapist begins by humming, singing or playing a single note, which is precisely timed and phrased to the patient's breathing. Gradually more notes are added and the complexity built up before being taken back down to a single note again. There's something very attractive about this as a compositional structure, so I'm planning to use this basic idea in several different ways throughout. In fact I've got very interested in the whole idea of breathing patterns; we've decided to start and end the opera with solo arias for Iris which are not-quite-identical mirror images of each other, and I've found some low chord clusters which have a feeling of soft breathing which I think might work well as an accompaniment for these.

I've also decided that the three characters should have quite different kinds of music. Iris' music is going to be very chromatic and melismatic (stretching words over several notes), whereas Bridget's will be much more melodic. She discovers Iris is locked-in (rather than being in a low-awareness state) when she notices Iris blinking in time to her singing, so I've written a little slightly Ella Fitzgerald-ish song for her to sing, which I can develop into other ideas elsewhere.

I've (eventually) been having fun with the Joe scenes; at first I was slightly tearing my hair out over how to set phrases like 'neurophysiological response', before I realised that there was something quite exciting about setting his lines very close to the actual speech rhythms of the interview transcripts we drew on when putting the libretto together. His scenes are also an opportunity to introduce a slightly lighter tone, so I'm trying to make his sections as bouncy and upbeat as possible.

We've got a R&D day coming up, where we're going to workshop two scenes with two the singers who'll hopefully be in the final performance - the soprano Anna Dennis (playing Iris), and Alison Crookendale, the contralto who'll be playing Bridget, so I'm looking forward to hearing some of the music sung live. We're going to concentrate on Iris' opening aria and the scene in which Bridget starts working with Iris using an alphabet chart, which Iris can navigate by blinking. As we found when interviewing the patients at the RHN, this is an unbelievably slow yet crucial process, and I'm starting to think about how to convey that musically without the audience (hopefully) getting bored.

Lots to do...

Arab Nights - Tania's musings

Arab Nights - Tania's musings


Only five weeks now until Arab Nights opens at the Soho in London - and so this week I'm delighted to share Lebanese Live Artist Tania El Khoury's thoughts and musings on her contribution to the production. And for those of you especially interested in 1001 Nights her piece - both powerful and very funny - also has echoes of a great tale within the ancient Nights canon called 'Abu Kassim's Slipper'. It seems the precedent of shoes as powerful objects of provocation is even older than we realised...

The multi-functional shoes

I stared at the newspaper's photo of the shoes that Asma El Assad purchased from Louboutin. This must a joke. Even for a play, I wouldn't write that the character of a brutal dictator’s wife buys a designer pair of shoes with nails coming out of them. Does she use them to poke the eyes of political prisoners? Surely she doesn't wear them to a dinner party thrown by queen Rania or any other freakishly smiling royal.

Being a dictator’s wife who is busy buying shoes while the people are dying is beyond a cliché. Shouldn't a modern and educated westernised first lady find herself a more unique passe-temps? Imelda Marcos, the wife of the former Philippino president did it before her. She left behind over 1000 pair of shoes when she fled the country.

Shoes in the Arab world played a part in politics long before the Assads' shopping basket was leaked to the media. They serve a specific task, to be thrown at the faces of dictators, war criminals, state media representatives and any other enemy of the people. If the world was a better place, these revolutionary shoes will be worth more than the entire collection of Louboutin.

Dictators in the Arab world also use shoes as a political tool. Last year, Nazeeha a friend from Bahrain was arrested for reporting on-line that she had witnessed the killing of a civilian by the police. She was tortured by having one of her shoes shoved down her throat. This story didn't make it to Vogue but Asma El Assad did.

Tania El Khoury | Wednesday October 17th 2012

Some hard decisions

By Jon

I've just had the first draft of the libretto through from Poppy. It's fantastic, striking a careful balance between the human story of Iris (our central Locked-In character) and Bridget (the nurse who cares for her and guides her on her journey to communication), and the scientific material we're also keen in to incorporate, which will be delivered by a character called Joe. s a music-therapist delivering a 'lunchtime lecture' (a regular feature of life at the RHN, which many of the staff attend).

Poppy and I conducted most of the interviews with staff and patients together, and worked out an overall broad form for the opera: a twelve-part structure, in which each section is a snapshot of successive months over a single year, and alternates between Iris' story and Joe's lecture, which will occasionally be interrupted by Bridget. It's thrilling to get a fully fleshed-out version of the bare-bones skeleton we've been discussing for so many months, and I'm now at the stage when I need to start making some fairly major decisions that'll have far-reaching effects on how I write it..

Firstly, the singers. For budgetary reasons we're limited to three voices, which led to a hard decision about the number of characters. We always knew we wanted Iris to be played simultaneously by two performers: an immobile actor and a soprano who would voice his / her thoughts. We also wanted to include a scientist of some sort - this became our Joe character, who would be a low male voice - either a bass or baritone. We thought long and hard about who the third character should be; originally we were very keen to include a character who was a friend or family member of Iris', but were very struck when visiting the hospital by the particular quality of the relationship between patients and the nurses who care for them, and so decided to explore this via the character of Bridget, who will be a contralto. This gives me a nice range of voices to work with, and it's a combination whose ranges sit above and below each other quite well.

Secondly - instruments! I'm limited to five musicians (again for cost reasons), so I need to choose a combination that I can get the maximum flexibility from in terms of range, dynamics, texture, and the ability to play not only solo melodic lines but also accompanying chordal-type material. I'm also not allowed a piano (budget...).

So with all this in mind (and taking a slight steer from Schoenberg's choice of instruments in one of my favourite pieces 'Pierrot Lunaire'), I've settled on a combination of cello, violin (doubling viola), clarinet (doubling up on my favourite instrument of all time - the bass clarinet), flute (doubling up on piccolo, alto flute and the fabulous piece of plumbing that is the bass flute), and a percussionist playing marimba, vibraphone and various other bits and pieces. Very excited at the prospect that we might be able to work with the virtuosic Aurora orchestra....