For this new adaptation of the Arabian Nights stories, belly dancing slaves, latticework screens, rich drapery and jewelled gowns, all bathed in a golden glow, with a fountain round which the audience sit together turn Hoxton Hall into an exotic Eastern palace thanks to designers Amber Scarlet and Maddy Ross-Mason and Benjamin Polya’s lighting. They set up a big expectation.
The vast collection of tales we know as the Arabian Nights, first put together more than twelve centuries ago and added to over the following centuries, could never all be fitted into one evening so Nessah Muthy’s play presents a selection. Some of her choices are familiar, some little-known stories and, just as these tales passed on through oral tradition have been reshaped in the telling, so too are these her own versions and they have all been shaped to fit into the containing story of Sharazad who uses their telling to beguile King Shahryar to save the life of her sister Dunzayad.
Shahryar has been betrayed by his wife and now takes his revenge on all women. Every day, his vizier brings him a beautiful woman and they are married and he sleeps with her, but in the morning she must face execution.
We first see Sharazad and her sister as slaves in the palace being chivvied by Hemi Yeroham’s vizier to finish preparations for the day’s wedding festivities, but next morning, after dealing with the body of the past night’s now-dead bride, the King sees Dunzayad and choses her as his next wife.
Izzy Jones is an attractive, rather scatterbrained Dunzayad while Sharon Singh’s Sharazad much more responsible. She promised their mother she would look after her younger sister and takes that very seriously. She has spirit too and stands up to Pravessh Rana’s imperious ruler, who looks very formidable, handsome and rich-voiced.
The opening scenes setting up this story are a little muddled and the accented women’s voices take a little time to get used to, but, once Sharazad starts telling her stories, things flow smoothly. All the cast (even the king) double roles in the stories, appearing as something else almost before you have realised they have left the stage and director Daniel Winder has contrived a fast-moving sequence full of invention that uses grotesque masks and realistic puppets (Sinbad the Sailor is especially delightful) that are well matched to the broad playing style.
Despite the violence of the story and some of the action (Ali-Baba’s brother-in-law gets chopped into pieces—this isn’t a piece for the tiny tots), there are lashings of humour, and an ending that rivals Shakespeare’s late plays in the way that it is made to come right.
With Ikky Elyas and Maya Britto completing the cast, Johnny Dixon's puppets and a score from Sonum Batra, this is a production that you rapidly warm to and the intimate venue makes you feel complicit in its creation.