The enduring story of Layla and Majnun: 3 key works

The ancient and beloved story of Layla and Majnun is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern folklore. Often compared to Romeo and Juliet, this tragic tale of star-crossed lovers is believed to have originated in Arabia in the 7th century and has proved rich inspiration for poets and artists ever since. As Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silkroad Ensemble prepare to bring a stunning new version to the Sadler’s Wells stage, we take a look at three key works which depict this enduring story.

1. Nizami Ganjavi’s poem


Image: Nizami Ganjavi’s original manuscript, from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Nizami Ganjavi’s influential poem, written in the 12th century, is believed to be the first literary processing of the Layla and Majnun story. Nizami drew upon various oral anecdotes reported in earlier Arabic sources to develop a multi-layered story which he wrote in a rhyming couplet masnawi form.

In the poem, Layla and Qays – who is referred to as Majnun, which means ‘possessed’ – are in love from childhood but forbidden to unite. Majnun is perceived to be mad in his obsession with Layla, and when Layla is married off to another, Majnun becomes a hermit, devoting himself to writing verses about his profound love. The lovers ultimately unite, but only in death.

Nizami’s poem influenced many others, including Muhammad Fuzuli (c. 1483 – 1556), whose equally famous poem became widely known in Ottoman Turkey.

2. Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s opera

Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885–1948) made history when he composed the opera Leyli and Majnun, which premiered in 1908 in Baku. With a libretto based on Muhammad Fuzuli’s poem, this opera was the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan, and holds an important place in national culture to this day – every new season of the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater programme opens with a performance of Leyli and Majnun. This filmed version is from April 2012.

3. Mark Morris & Silkroad Ensemble’s dance production  

In this remarkable work, celebrated American choreographer Mark Morris has collaborated with the Silkroad Ensemble and the late British artist Howard Hodgkin to stage Hajibeyli’s opera. Madness and mysticism intertwine as 16 dancers interpret the narrative, tailoring their movements to improvised music sung in the style of mugham by the celebrated father and daughter vocalists Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. Silkroad musicians perform live on stage with traditional Asian instruments, playing in harmony with Western strings and percussion. This production marks the first time that an adaptation of Layla and Majnun has been presented in the UK on this scale.

Layla and Majnun comes to Sadler’s Wells on 13 – 17 November. Tickets are £12-£45. To book, call the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.