Corpses, mutilation, and snakes are enough to make anyone squeamish, but in this performance of Arabian Nights it was too much for one little girl who left the theatre crying. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation is full of violence, and should perhaps come with a warning for the younger demographic. It is, however, also full of magic, fun, and emotion, and is one of the finest productions from the company in the last year.
The play tells the tale of King Shahrayer who discovers his wife has been unfaithful and puts her to death, and from then on he declares the same fate for each new bride after just one night of marriage. Upon hearing this Shahrazad marries the King and each night she tells him a story in hope of staying another night and saving the women of Baghdad.
Dominic Cooke previously adapted and directed the play for the Old Vic back in 1998, but now post 9-11 it is difficult to ignore how the violence and sexism has a greater resonance. “Your trick is working”, says the King about Shahrazad’s storytelling. Cooke’s women are resourceful rather than crafty, they are resolving situations rather than resorting to violence. And our heroine Shahrazad, played by Ayesha Dharker, embodies this perfectly: she has a mix of beauty, with bambi eyes and childlike expressions, and boldness, entering the King’s palace and putting her life at risk.
Cooke and his cast successfully bring to life six of the Thousand and One Nights stories. Everything is larger-than-life: the actors in 40 Thieves maneuver themselves from riding across the stage to becoming a tight cave in a second, the elaborate puppetry in Ed-Sindibad conveys the most exotic animals, and even the extended fart gag in Abu-Hassan echoes across the theatre.
With its touch of Bollywood melodrama and Shakespearean romance, from families reuniting to father and daughter relationships, this is a delightful show for adults and children (the little girl did manage to return during the interval). The Royal Shakespeare Company is on top form.
Runs till 30 January.
To see or not to see: * * * * *