The Arabian Nights

This re-imagining of One Thousand and One Nights is a fun and often lyrical testimony to the cultural richness and diversity of the Middle East, at a time when the western media focuses only on anger and extremism. But as vibrant and as hopeful about the redemptive power of the imagination as this production is, it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole.

The Tricycle is known for explicitly political work, but here it simply opens the pages of an anthology of short stories collected over centuries and lets them speak for themselves. Mary Zimmerman’s selected adaptation, first staged in 1992, dispenses with those tales added later by European translators. So gone are Ali Baba and Aladdin, and with them the garish layers of panto and Disney.

The frame remains the same: for three years, King Shahryar of Baghdad has married a new bride and killed her the next morning, as revenge for his first wife’s adultery. This bloodshed continues until he meets a young woman, Scheherazade, who uses the power of storytelling to save her life, sharing a new tale each night to keep his knife from her throat.

The stories unfold within each other, with Scheherzade’s characters telling their own tales, serious and comedic, out of self-protection or remorse. The effect is like a stone dropped in a lake, with narratives rippling off in all directions within the confines of the overarching story. Some of these make a better splash than others.

Themes of betrayal and challenging prejudice loop in and out of Zimmerman’s choice of tales. The tone varies from adult and poignant (the man masquerading as a ruler out of wistful envy because he feels so worthless following the death of the woman he betrayed) to farcical, with three lovers hiding out in a toilet with a cuckolded husband oblivious in another room.

This makes for a scattershot theatrical experience, as matters of life and death stand in uneasy proximity to fart jokes and a ‘zany’ trolley crashes through the back wall of the stage. Each tale works on its own terms, but collectively they tug awkwardly at each other. A strained Gangnam-style dance sequence and some poorly planted modern references are further jarring notes.

But if Lu Kemp’s production occasionally stumbles – perhaps in trying too hard to cater to children as well as adults – this only stands out because of its excellence elsewhere. The set is an exercise in beautiful, magical simplicity, with hanging light bulbs that bob above the stage like a night sky from a dream. It perfectly accompanies the poor-theatre style of performance, which conjures the tales of Scheherazade’s imagination out of just a few props.

This joyful raiding of the dressing up box is matched by an ensemble cast whose rush of exuberance fills the stage with life. Their comic timing is great and they paint their characters brightly and vividly, transforming their posture and demeanour from tale to tale as Scheherazade survives another night and the stories begin again.

Here, storytelling, communicating, changes people and rejuvenates kingdoms, like the grass that appears in the second act as King Shahryar falls in love with Scheherazade and the tales that have broken through the bloody walls of his anger. Given the names and places, it would be easy to treat this as a salutary parable for our times. But its optimism and sense of wonder isn’t bound by geography.

First published by Exeunt Magazine

Posted in: Reviews, Theatre