The Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival, first launched in 1998, has become one of the major festivals and celebrations or Arabic culture and art, with the aim being to raise ‘awareness and promotion of Arabic culture in Liverpool, and in the UK’, and in 2010, the festival received the Arab British Centre’s Culture and Society Award for ‘an outstanding contribution to the public knowledge and understanding of life, society and culture of the Arab people in Britain.

This telling of the tale of Qays and Layla, performed by Palestinian writer and actor Amer Hlehel accompanied by two musicians, Rihab Azar and Kareem Samara, achieves both these aspects. Sometimes viewed as the Arab Romeo and Juliet, the tale predates Shakespeare and his sources by several centuries. The two meet as children and fall in love. Qays, obsessed with Layla, begins writing and reciting poetry to her, earning himself the epithet of ‘majnun’ – madman. Unwilling to give his daughter in marriage to someone with a reputation for insanity, Layla’s father marries her off to an older man while Qays wanders the desert, grieving for his love and continuing to write verse in her honour. Like many such tales, it ends tragically for the young lovers.

The story underwent various transformations in Arabic literature, the most recent being by Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad, which was subsequently translated into English by John Verlenden.

It is this version and the translation that inspired Amer Hlehel to develop this production. The theatre is in darkness, lit only by three candles, whose flicker catches the Arabic inscriptions on the black floor. Hlehel enters, whose remarkable musicianship adds colour and intensity to the spoken word, reflecting the passion and the tenderness in the poetry.

The simplicity of the set helps focus on the creation of the images purely from the words of the poem, alternating between the two languages, depending on which version Hlehel felt best expressed the image he wished to convey, thus allowing the musicality of both languages to intertwine and weave in and out of the music. Subtitles for the sections in Arabic are projected onto the wall at the back.

This beautiful production is remarkable in that it conveys both the uniqueness of the Arabic culture while emphasising the universal aspect of the tale, helping us to look again at what we may have thought was already familiar, where the music and poetry of another land helps bring new meaning to tales of love and tragedy.

Reviewer: Johanna Roberts

Reviewed: 7th July 2019

North West End Rating: ★★★★★