The first thing that strikes you about the Iris Theatre’s production of Arabian Nights is the set design. The already noble yet austere interior of the Hoxton Hall has been transformed with silk drapes, damask cushions, towering lattice work screens and even a trickling fountain. Sensitively illuminated by Benjamin Polya’s enigmatic lighting design, the whole is a triumph of colour, texture and atmosphere. There’s even a waft of incense as the table is laid for King Shahryar’s next wedding.
Nessah Muthy’s free adaptation of 1001 Nights grounds the story in the relationship between Izzy Jones’ Dunzayad and her sister Sharazad played with assertive elegance by Sharon Singh. Muthy doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat the violent misogyny, but Singh’s Sharazad is an articulate and persuasive storyteller, quick-witted but composed. In taming Pravessh Rana’s bullish King, she saves both their lives and consequently falls in love. It’s not an ideal romance, but Muthy’s meaty script is utterly absorbing, instantly drawing the audience into a wholly unfamiliar world.
The tales unfold predominantly as puppet and mask shows, but full reign is given to the imagination. There are giants, genies, sea-monsters and a whole host of vain wives, greedy in-laws and of course, forty thieves. The tale of Sinbad the Sailor is perhaps the most complex, but Muthy has cherry-picked the best stories to suit the themes of love and loyalty prominent in the framing plot. It might benefit from some judicious editing, but rather like King Shahryar it would be impossible to know exactly where to stop.