Dominic Cooke tells Terry Grimley about Arabian Nights and the threat to Britain’s theatrical renaissance.
These are good times for Dominic Cooke, but like many of his colleagues in British theatre, he is acutely aware that the party could soon be over.
The artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre enjoyed a triumph at the recent Evening Standard Theatre Awards, when his theatre took the starring role courtesy of its hit productions of Lucy Prebble’s Enron and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
But Cooke, who moved to the Royal Court from an associate directorship at the Royal Shakespeare Company three years ago, has been prominent among those warning that, whoever wins next year’s election, public spending cuts have the potential to undo much of what has been achieved by Britain’s theatres over the last decade.
Last year, he wrote a newspaper article expressing alarm at a comment by shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt implying that public funding could be rolled back in favour of private patronage, but the article elicited a reassuring response from Hunt’s colleague Ed Vaizey.
“The Tories are making all the right noises,” Cooke concedes. “But the reality, as we know, is that there’s not a lot of cash around.
“It seems to me there has been a sea-change from the Thatcher years, in that there’s an acceptance now in Tory circles that the arts are important economically and culturally in terms of defining who we are.
“But the problem is they are committed to cutting back public spending and it’s impossible to be seen taking money away from hospitals and schools and not taking it away from the arts.
“No one knows what’s going to happen, especially with the Olympics. We all know that every Olympic project goes way over budget.”
So it could be that the curtain is about to come down on a period of expansion and enterprise in the theatre – which, incidentally, has generally been rewarded with bumper audiences, despite the recession.
“We should all be proud of what we have, not just in London but right across the country,” says Cooke. “It’s a very rich mix of talent and resources that we have built up, and there is a relationship between funding and the quality of work.
“The arts generally in Britain are in a strong condition and, weirdly, they are even more important in difficult times, especially theatre.
“We have to make sure that we are putting the arguments for public subsidy out there.”
Meanwhile, we can at least enjoy Christmas – and how better than with the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves? Not in the usual panto version, though, but as part of a revival of Cooke’s 1998 production of Arabian Nights, which he has returned to Stratford to direct for the RSC.
First staged by the Young Vic, Cooke’s version has also enjoyed productions elsewhere – in fact, the New Vic in Stoke-on-Trent is also doing it this Christmas.
“There have been quite a few productions, actually. I’ve gone back to it and reworked it, going back to the original stories. The times are so different now, and this is one of the things that really interested me in coming back to it
“We did it three times, at the Young Vic, for the British tour and the international tour, and we finished in 2000. And of course the world’s relationship with Islam has changed beyond recognition since then. There is a whole generation of children for whom the city of Baghdad, which features in a number of the stories, is only associated with war.
“It’s a family show. It’s very entertaining, but that’s an interesting element. And of course there are far more actors of Asian heritage now and so one is able to engage with that community, and that’s a very good thing.”
Cooke recalls that when he was first invited to direct a Christmas show at the Young Vic and suggested Arabian Nights, he had such a clear idea of how he wanted to do it that it was difficult to entrust the adaptation to another writer. He had to persuade the theatre’s then artistic director, Tim Supple, that he was up to the job.
“I spent six months in the British Library looking at the 18 volumes of Richard Burton’s original translations,” he recalls. “I had to be selective because some of the material is really adult, but the stories I wanted to adapt really jumped out at me.
“The thing about Arabian Nights is that it was not written down for centuries. The stories were told all over the Middle East by professional storytellers and started to be written down and find their way into Europe in the 18th century.
“There are stories like Ali Baba and Sinbad that people will be familiar with. I was going to do Aladdin but it’s such a long story. There are aspects of them that are very familiar from their pantomime versions – Open Sesame, for example, everyone knows that – but they have rougher edges and have a lot of violence in them.
“I’ve done some editing and also I’ve translated them into workable language, but they are very true to the shape of the original story.”
Cooke’s main intervention has been in the frame of the story – Queen Shahrazad and her ingenuity in not only telling her husband a new story each night but in giving it a cliff-hanger ending so that her life will be spared for another day.
“There’s quite a lot that’s new in the show, where I thought it was oversimplified and I have gone back to the original and thought it needed to be more complex. The funniest thing for me coming back after 10 years has been that I’m really different. There are some things I really love and some things I would never do now.
“And another important difference is that we have double the number of actors and three times the number of musicians. So we are able to do a lot more and bring off those ‘big-company’ moments.”
* Arabian Nights is at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from Saturday until January 30 (Box office: 0844 800 1110).