ARABIAN NIGHTS: Adapted and directed by Dominic Cooke
RSC: Courtyard Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
Runs: 2h 40m, one interval, till Saturday 30 January 2010
Review: Rod Dungate, 15 December 2009
A lovely production that will grow, I suspect, into a beautiful one.
Dominic Cooke’s production of ARABIAN NIGHTS is a lovely experience. There are one or two teething problems and I have a suspicion the production won’t be to everyone’s taste – but that’s rather those people’s problem I think.
Cooke has tried to preserve the spirit of the original; this is both it’s true context – cultural, historical and thematic – and it’s wide-ranging and occasionally gruesome playfulness. So if there are knives in the story, there are knives, if there is fighting, there is fighting and if there are near hangings, there are near hangings. While this clearly disturbed some adults (on children’s behalf), the children in the audience were lapping it up and seeing the dark humour – well balanced beings, the children.
Shaharazad tells these stories, we must remember, to save her own neck. A repeated, out of the acting-space, axe sharpening effect reminds us of this. The stories themselves stem from cruelty. But the stories have the power to heal and there is a happy ending. The stories, themselves (beautifully varied in tone) are meandering tales. They are constructed differently from Western tales – although they have much in common too; these tales succeed because of delight in invention, surprising magic, cruelty overcome and humour. The over-arching theme is that storytelling, the act of sharing language, has the power to heal and bring peace. And the whole is movingly far greater than the sum of the parts.
Stories include the well-known Ali Baba, Sinbad, the hilarious Little Tailor, the ghoulish Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat to name but a few. Cooke has opted for simplicity in the telling of the tales, the set (designs by Georgia McGuinness) are minimal (power is in the words) and the costuming opulent.
Stories are told by a highly energetic company, constantly switching between direct address and in-role modes. On the night I saw it, the company was pushing too hard and fast in the first half and some clarity was lost. However, the second half was more relaxed and more effective. A more easy-going relationship with the audience (which I suspect will come quickly) will rocket this good production into a stunning one.
Ayesha Dharker is a youthful and engaging Sheharazade, full of wit and innocence; Silas Carson brings passion, authority and elegance to Shahrayar. Simon Trinder brings his welcome wit and physical humour to the feast . . . and the dusting on the Turkish Delight is some beautiful puppet work (and puppets) throughout – particularly the ‘bird that talks’.
Adapted and Directed by: Dominic Cooke
Designed by: Georgia McGuinness
(Other credits to follow shortly.)