Iris Theatre’s production of Arabian Nights draws on a big bag of impressive tricks that includes giant and miniature puppets, face-altering masks, music, dancing and boundless energy. Its source material is One Thousand and One Nights, a Middle Eastern compendium of folk tales encompassing stories, myths and legends from multiple countries and belief systems. The storyline is relatively simple: a woman, Sharazad, has to keep telling stories to the evil bride-murdering King Shahryar to avoid getting her and her sister, Dunyazad, killed.
Writer Nessah Muthy also interweaves a selection of other stories from the same book, including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad The Sailor and The Hunchback’s Tale – they not only warms the heart of the King, but also charm the audience. Each story unfolds in a unique way, featuring a cast of colourful characters and creatures such as giant snakes with full bellies, blood-sucking female demons, whirling dervishes and treacherous thieves.
The hardworking cast of six might as well be spinning plates in the air. They not only play the main characters, but also operate puppets of different kinds, embody all the other characters within the stories, sing, dance and play instruments. Actor Hemi Yeroham is a particular crowd favourite, his fleet-footed Hunchback quirky and likeable, his senior Sinbad wise and wistful. Sharon Singh also gives a moving portrayal of the desperate and soft-hearted Sharazad.
Muthy’s handling of gender gives the script some punch – there are female ogres and djinns, actors playing characters of different genders, and Sharazad in particular is imbued with immense agency. I enjoyed this modern take on an old story. Yet despite the best efforts of actor Pravessh Rana to humanise the King, his eventual redemption though a marriage to Sharazad on supposedly equal terms feels like a let down. There are also multiple instances of icky non-consensual kissing. Yes, the show stays true to the source text, but this felt unconvincing in light of the zeitgeisty spirit of the production. Perhaps this is why the spunky-yet-overlooked Dunyazad (a charming Izzy Jones) is given a short monologue after a false ending, hinting at the unexplored complexity of her character and the possibility of a sequel to this story.
Arabian Nights taps out at a lengthy 2.5 hours, with an overstuffed second half. One senses that this is to give space to the creative team to flex their respective muscles, from puppet designer Jonny Dixon, to costume designer Maddy Ross-Mason and choreographer Nour Alkawaja. Director Daniel Winder makes excellent use of the deep and tall stage in Hoxton Hall, getting the actors to fill every inch of the space and involving the audience in the banquets, weddings and games of the stories. Credit too goes to fight director Roger Bartlett, who manages to make all the onstage altercations seem dangerous. The physicality of the actors was so visceral that I found myself flinching a few times.
Despite some flaws, Arabian Nights is an utterly spellbinding and evocative night at the theatre. If there was a magic carpet, the audience would have been firmly on it, their feet dangling high above ground.
Arabian Nights is on at Hoxton Hall until 13 October 2018. Click here for more information.