When Wagner invoked the concept of the “total art work”, he doubtless had in mind something a deal more solemn and grandiose than Derby Playhouse’s Arabian Nights. Nevertheless the production provides a superb example of how to integrate narrative, drama, design, music, dance and magic in the service of a common goal.
Joint artistic directors Karen Louise Hebden (as writer) and Stephen Edwards (director) have created a light-hearted, amusing show that remains intelligent and essentially serious. First of all this Arabian Nights is about story-telling: two narrators begin by recalling the old tale of Shahrazad and the Sultan, and the stories of the 1001 Nights feature characters saving themselves (like Shahrazad) by their compelling tales. At times we find ourselves in a tale within a tale within a tale.
Then the play deals with the redemptive power of love and trust. The Sultan has been betrayed by his wife, but Shahrazad is saved from execution less by the cliff-hanging qualities of her stories (the Sultan sees through her device almost at once) than by her love for him.
Tension is ratcheted up by the brooding and dangerous intensity of Glenn Carter as the Sultan. And the interval comes not only halfway through the Story of Ali Baba, but with the axe poised above Shahrazad’s neck. In Kirsty Yates’ unselfish performance, Shahrazad is resourceful, sincere and (alone among the three women in the cast) very English – which fits with the Baghdad to Barnsley approach to accents.
The tales are performed by a resourceful team of six actors, with the physical theatre of Lucien MacDougall especially memorable, whether riding into town at the head of his 40 Thieves (well, three) or swimming merrily above the set as a fairly unprepossessing genie. The cartoon style (with percussion for everything from punches to horses’ hoofs) gradually lessens during the climactic tale of Aladdin, the only one told uninterrupted.
Toni Jane Bysouth’s atmospheric design, dominated by a fine staircase bending across the set, is ideal for a play of different levels and simultaneous narratives. Aided by Tina MacHugh’s lighting, special effects work well with only the boulder blocking Aladdin’s cave seeming rather feeble, while the dismembering of Ali Baba’s brother Cassim is a real triumph.
Kelvin Towse’s songs benefit from some fine (possibly underused) singing voices, but the major role of the music is constant underscoring by a versatile quartet, with key contributions from bass clarinet and erhu (Chinese two-string violin!).
- Ron Simpson