Everything works, from the moment you walk in. Anna Lewis’s effortless, simple design wraps you in sumptuous, silky Eastern-ness. Co-director Tommo Fowler’s gentle drumming (not a djembe, but a bit like) completes the mood. And you sit, on a cushioned bench, or on a cushion on the floor, in the bedroom where Scheherazade and the king, Sharyar, live through the tales. You are a captive of the story about stories for a fleeting hour.
Sharyar himself awaits you, in the dashing form of Nick Burns, seated in black despair and loneliness on his throne. His tirade against the treachery of womankind is the ageless cry of men which sings from every form of art, from the blues to trashy sitcom.
The language is powerful and poetic, evoking the muscular rhythms of Marlowe. Alex Darby’s deft adaptation spans the ages, blending formal tradition with a natural, contemporary spontaneity. His creation is a masterful piece of writing and it is served with excellence by every member of the cast.
Scheherazade, played by the passionate and exotic Nouran Koriem, brings the nobility of womanhood to the scene. She rebukes the king for his selfish vengeance, offering herself as a sacrifice for the whole kingdom, which suffers under his ruthless law.
And then the stories begin. Only three, from the 1001 on offer, but Darby has chosen a trio of moral tales that bring about the king’s change of heart with complete conviction. We have the cunning of 'The Fisherman and the Djinni', the tragedy of 'The Second Dervish' and the farcical comedy of 'The Woman With Many Lovers'. Ibby Khan, Manuela Galan, Anne Binderup and Eliza Easton bring each story to life with engaging invention.
This, really, is the defining quality of this work of art. The players morph between roles and functions without breaking rhythm and our imaginations dance along with them. Here, three form a camel to carry a prince. Then they are a staircase to a dark cavern, down which steps a cardboard puppet prince, held by the performer who was himself the prince moments earlier. Deserts, doorways and flickering shoals of fish are conjured and dissolved as if the company are privy to their own form of mystic oriental glamour, with Tommo Fowler and his co-director Lucie Dawkins as master and mistress of the craft.
Matt Willis and James Barber have created a lighting design that mirrors the simple power of the set, using shadow as effectively as light to enrich the stories. And production manager Sarah Grabiner must take great credit for bringing the piece to life in little more than a week.
But we should also not forget the creators of the original tales, whose grasp of the human condition and the power of story-telling still resonates, even in a deeply edited version. You can’t help feeling they would have been entranced by this imaginative adaptation of their work.
Arabian Nights is at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday, June 16. Work any kind of magic you can to catch it before it vanishes.