Stories illuminate the truth, lies hide it; that’s just one of the lessons audiences of all ages can take from Suhayla El-Bushra’s energetic new adaptation of The Arabian Nights, brought to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum stage by director Joe Douglas; a suitably magical portmanteau of mythical stories within stories that offers a genuinely inventive, and refreshingly vibrant family entertainment for the festive season. Nothing quite like the desert sands to keep you warm in winter!
The overall result is a show that’s full of surprises, and just enough of a theatrical challenge for both children and adults alike.
For the grown ups, admittedly, there’s more to El-Bushra’s retelling of these ancient stories than just the entertaining rumination of a 2000-year old dog with serious flatulence issues. There are references to a Sultan’s capricious tyranny, where thousands of rules—most of them senseless—restrict everything from storytelling to being a girl. And there’s a coming-of-age narrative, where the previously irresponsible young Scheherazade risks everyone in order to entertain a grief-scarred Sultan every night with exciting and informative stories, in order to rescue her mother and the market stall owners imprisoned for no good reason.
Admittedly, there are occasions during the first half when this over-arching narrative doesn’t feel quite strong enough to enable the show to truly fly, not without some pretty hard leg-work by its undoubtedly excellent cast—at least when compared to the gloriously vertiginous “stories within stories” sequence later on. Even so, there’s plenty to hold the attention of even the youngest audience member, not least the superb melding of ancient shadow puppetry and modern digital projection. This is a fun-filled production which feels modern and yet not disrespectful of the original stories in either intent or presentation.
It’s a softened version, admittedly; Scheherazade (Rehanna MacDonald, who gives us a lively, appealing heroine) no longer faces nightly execution after her wedding night, for example. (A vindictive sock genie, meantime, sails close to the shores of Disney with its blue muscular appearance; indeed, the ubiquity of “the Mouse” in Western culture might explain why Aladdin gets a name-check and little more.) Yet some genuine jeopardy remains, thanks to Nicholas Karimi who, as the Sultan, gives a sufficiently nuanced portrait of one man’s power, reminding us of the sharp edge of the executioner’s sword that’s waiting just off stage.
It’s important to note that the Royal Lyceum’s The Arabian Nights is an opportunity to see a far more diverse range of performers on stage than is often the case at Christmas-time; individually and together they prove to be extremely versatile—most have to play at least three characters—and funny. The overall result is a show that’s full of surprises, and just enough of a theatrical challenge for both children and adults alike.