This production of Mary Zimmerman’s 1994 take on the wonderful fables from the Islamic Golden Age is not the first Arabian Nights I have seen staged. But it is one of the most most joyous, honest and intelligent.
Sandy Grierson and Adura Onashile in The Arabian Nights at the Tricycle Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
It imagines our virgin-slaying King, who is told the tales by Scheherazade, as a knife-wielding shaven headed thug in a dirty vest. As with the source text, the framing device is deftly woven into the storytelling by a cracking ensemble who manage to weave in and out of their narratives and characters with the merest slip of a cloak or change of voice.
Aimed at kids, it is declamatory at times with big gestures. But room is also made for a more complicated dialogue between the stories and the central premise of Scheherazade trying to save her own skin by softening her husband.
The tales are often harsh and moralistic. But this production also manages a clever trick of feeling both modern and ancient. Richard Howell’s brilliantly evocative lighting suggests at one minute a sunburned bazaar or jasmine scented evening in Baghdad, before another scene takes in some loud music from Iranian rock outfit Take it Easy Hospital. It can also be hilariously unexpected - Denton Chikura had a fine line in heavily African accented bathos and I loved it when the cast burst out into the song Oh What an Enormous Fart.
The ensemble also manage to deploy their physicality to great effect (I’m thinking Hemi Yeroham’s hilarious pot belly here) and they seemed to really enjoy themselves. And Onashile, in what appeared to be a last minute cast change, managed a Scheherazade both poignant and vibrant.