Wild Words, a company comprising professional storytellers Martin Maudsley, Jane Flood and Michael Loader, with musicians Liz Purnell and Piers Partridge, has produced a reworking of the Arabian Nights, those stories from the Middle East, Africa and India that audiences have known and loved for centuries. Dark tales, in fact, of kingdoms where djinns suffuse the air, slavery abounds and citizens have difficulty keeping their heads attached to their bodies.
It is the Persian elements that come through most strongly in this production, which weaves together and occasionally hybridises some of the lesser known stories; these, in turn, stem from the principal tale of Scheherezade. Betrayed by his first and beloved wife, the Shah of Persia in revenge marries and then executes a new bride each day. Determined to put an end to this, Scheherezade, beautiful and wise in equal measure, marries the Shah and embarks on a storytelling adventure that will last a thousand and one nights.
This performance, although highly planned, was, as I understand, unscripted. Which makes the fluency, rhythm and general display of linguistic ability all the more admirable. New words evolved alongside the stories (‘furkled’ is a particular favourite) and metaphors became acceptably mixed. There was a sense of balance of skills within the group that manifested itself in the harmony between words and music.
The stage I suspect was deliberately sparsely furnished in order to focus the audience on the storytelling itself. It also showcased the instruments that were played live to great effect. The sense of enclosure in the converted Victorian swimming pool of the North Wall Arts Centre made it possible for the stories literally to fill the room.
Equally entertaining were the audience. From the children with the crisp packets (whose noise thankfully subsided as the drama heightened), to the man presenting his rubbish collection problem to the Grand Vizir, to the boy who would choose to be – above all other animals – a chicken, all were deftly incorporated into the story by the actors.
Oral storytelling for the best part of two hours is no easy feat and, overall, it was done very well. The only disappointment for me, and perhaps the inevitable flip side of engagement with the audience, was the slightly ironic tone and self-awareness of it all. Call me old-fashioned, but I wanted to be spellbound by a tale in which the tellers themselves were totally and unselfconsciously immersed, without knowing quips or witticisms that occasionally descended to pantomime humour. Every time this happened the magic was lost and the spell, for me, was broken. Despite this, however, an enjoyable evening.