Saturday, 2 January 2010

Theatre: Arabian Nights

So, the wicked uncles took their darling nieces to the theatre on Boxing Night, girls in party frocks, chaps dressed up like the ugly sisters. Those rangy brothers looked quite a sight in their platform shoes and periwigs, slip-sliding down Waterside, the girls a sensible distance behind, as passersby cried out 'they're behind you!' and 'oh yes they did!'

The Royal Shakespeare Company have been putting on Christmas productions for several years now, aimed at attracting a seasonal family audience to something more than pantomime, not that there's anything wrong with panto. Get the right kids at the right age to the right production and they'll come away enchanted and return to the theatre for nights of magic for the rest of their lives.

'Arabian Nights' is both a brave choice - its stories deriving from another culture, and like most folk stories, having often adult themes - and a creative one - the stories within a story nature of the source material lends itself to adaptation. Some of these tales taken from '1001 nights really are as old as the hills, being compiled during the Islamic Golden Age but often dating back to more ancient times.

The frame story concerns a King who, being betrayed by his Queen, executes her and pledges to take a wife a night and execute her at dawn for the rest of his life. You're with the guy from the start, and feel somewhat disappointed when a talented storyteller enters his boudoir and persuades him to spare her so long as she entertains him with a bedtime story. And what stories they are, half-a-dozen or so selected from the thousand and more available in various editions, majoring in this production on those most known to us - Ali Baba, Sinbad etc - even though they were introduced into the Arabic work by European translators gathering together all the entertainments the east had to offer into one volume.

If the plot lines and themes are typical of turn of the first millennium Arabian life, men of the time were even more concerned with blood, sex, money and destiny than we are today. Every tale turns on a lie, and only the audience know the full facts of the affair, and the real predicament of each character, as they come on and go off stage. Being seated on the front row of a balcony, I could tell what worked and what didn't for my triplet of young critics by the angle at which they sat; most of the evening their foreheads touched the bars that saved them from a tragic tumble stagewards, only when hungry did they lean back and inquire of ice cream.

The format worked well for the kids. A two-and-a-half hour performance after two days of over-eating and over-excitement might have been too much for them had it not been cut up into bite-sized chunks. Talking of dismemberment, having read previews, I warned the little angels that bodies would be butchered on stage, which naturally piqued their curiosity, and they weren't disappointed. The Courtyard stage juts into the audience Elizabethan style and we were up in the gallery - a Saturday night performance attracting peak seat prices with no child discount and the wicked uncles being notoriously mean - so the effects were transparent although no less compelling.

Indeed, Dominioc Cooke as Director deployed every trick in the book to keep an audience that spanned the ages - and nationalities - entertained, giving the cherubs a real sense of the possibility of theatre and story-telling; they especially enjoyed the puppetry and dance. Sat, as we were, alongside the orchestra, I feared ears full of pipes and drums by curtain call but the music was subtle, inflected with Arabic influences and instrumentation, and sometimes accompanied by song by a flexible cast who each had their turn to shine, while playing within the new ensemble ethic of the RSC.

The King proved to be a two-faced villain by the end of the play, going back on his previous pledge to execute every woman who entered his bedchamber by marrying the yarn-spinning damsel who charmed him and us. I felt let down by the turncoat, but I'll forgive him, if only because without his softening of heart we'd never have been introduced to the singing tree and the impossible bird which had our sweetie munching sweeties skipping home, the wicked uncles skating along behind them.

Arabian Nights is playing at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until January 30th 2010 and is a Royal Shakespeare Company production.

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