The staging was ingenious – the stage had lots of little pockets and cubbyholes out of which the actors drew various props, masks, puppets, and costumes. The treatment of the gorier bits was beautifully done in the traditional manner of medieval mystery plays, with red ribbons standing in for flowing blood, falling intestines and rended corpse-flesh. The stories – Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Little Beggar, Es-Sindibad the Sailor, How Abu Hassan Broke Wind, The Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat, and the Envious Sisters – are all inhabited and enacted rather than simply told, and take illuminating place within the framework of the evolving relationship between the Great Shahrayar and Shahrazad. There were many funny moments – though children might find the early sections a bit dull (if mine is anything to go by) they will certainly wake up and start laughing by the time of Abu Hassan’s giant fart, and from then it’s total engagement. The music was gorgeous, and for once not too loud.
It’s better than last Christmas’s The Snow Queen in one important respect – the venue. The celebrated Mirror Tent is so unusual, and so scrumptious, with its beautifully draped ceiling, elaborately carved and gilded pillars and painted panels, it gives a flavour of luxury verging on decadence. It was perfectly warm and comfortable. Its only slight disadvantage is that it is somewhat insubstantial, and this means that the occasional boy racer screaming round the ring-road, or the police helicopter, can intrude on the performance. The seating is arranged in three rows – A, B and C – around the central stage, which is raised to about eye level for a seated person, and within the rows, cabaret-style around tables. You can order a variety of tasty middle-eastern treats to eat and wine, beer, spirits or sodas to drink. If you sit in row A you will see and hear everything, though you might be a tad too close to the Golden Waters featured in the story of The Envious Sisters. If you sit in row B, and you’re not behind someone enormous in row A, you will have a pretty good view but you might miss some of the stage-level action. If you’re in row C, you may have the advantage of comfy sofas rather than little chairs, and if you’re at the back you can stand up to catch the low-level stuff without discommoding anyone behind you; but your view might be impaired by pillars or larger patrons in front – something you have to think about if you’re bringing children. Which I would recommend.