Like her mythical Arabian counterpart, 1001 Nights’ modern-day Shahrazad lives a life powered by stories. While her parents fuss around trying to get her to the dinner table, Shahrazad remains absorbed in texts just inches away from her nose.
Yet despite our heroine’s complete lack of compliance, it’s clear that this is one gloriously harmonious family. Playfully, mum (Ritu Arya) and dad (Thomas Padden) creep ever closer to their daughter, attempting the odd tap of a shoulder before retreating swiftly. With great comic flair, they disguise their attempts by turning to their own alternative stories, squashing non-existent flies or attempting impromptu press-up sessions to mask their failed attempts to draw Shahrazad away from her fictional bubble.
Eventually, through a strategic charades game, where Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is aptly mimed, mum manages to steal the heavily bound red book away… and dinner is served. Echoing each other’s melodramatic gestures with the broadest smiles, these three characters make one compelling unit.
But while this charming first scene plots Shahrazad’s use of stories to escape the real world, the rest of the tale, sprinkled with delightful references to the traditional source text, delivers a powerful fable – showing how fiction can be used to enhance an active engagement with the real world.
When Shahrazad and her father escape an unspecified war-torn country, leaving a passport-less mum behind as they head to distant London, stories become an essential coping mechanism. Disregarding the knotted narrative structure of the familiar Arabian Nights – where brave Scheherazade intertwines stories within stories to protect herself from the wicked intentions of King Shahryar – the Unicorn’s version reshuffles and blends numerous allusions to its source as our heroine swiftly romanticizes her own tale and negotiates one thousand and one nights in a strange land without her mother.
Stories serve another important function in Shahrazad’s world, helping her to find a place in a new land where, ever the optimist, the only word she knows is ‘yes’. While the whereabouts of Shahrazad’s mother is unknown, Arya springs back on stage as Fred, the taunted English boy who befriends our heroine.
They may use different gestures to represent prayer, but as they transform found objects into props that transcend language and cultural divides, our two young characters begin to comprehend the different mythologies and, in turn, each other. As tales from Grimm merge with fables from the Islamic Golden Age, 1001 Nights develops a powerful new folklore, showing us that through patience, understanding and imagination, we can script our own shared experience of the world.