10 December 2012
Susan Bennett is transported to a kasbah by the Library Theatre Company's Arabian Nights production at The Lowry's Turkish-pink Quays Theatre in Salford, Manchester, bringing together the larger-than-life stories of One Thousand and One Nights...
King Shahryer (Emilio Doorgasingh) is betrayed by his first wife. To get his revenge, he marries a young woman every evening, and then kills her the following morning. Sheherazade (Roksaneh Ghawam-Shahidi) convinces her father to let her marry the King as she has a plan to stop the killings by entrancing him with her stories.
And within minutes, we are similarly enraptured. Sitting as far forward as our seats allow, those of us in the circle also hang over the railing, straining to be nearer - nothing to do with wanting to hear better but through subconscious enchantment.
Presented as a series of tales, the production moves seamlessly as actors speak their parts but also narrate, complete with authentic Manchester accents. It's like being read to, while the action happens right there. Ingenious visual cues prompt your imagination and you're up and away, as involved in limitless imagination as if you are curled up at home with the book.
The star for me is the man with rubber legs, Tachia Newall. We first see him as the Little Beggar who chokes while trying to swallow a huge fish whole. His body is then passed on by various local merchants, all wanting to avoid blame. He is stuffed down a chimney, dragged round town and hurled down stairs, while simultaneously appearing dead as a door nail and undulating like a serpent. The townspeople eventually haul the fishbone out of his throat in a collective tug-of-war.
Newall reappears in a later tale as someone cursed to be a dog by his flesh-eating wife, who consorts with a ghoul after dark. His contortions, writhing on the floor, each part of his body moving like elastic water, are astonishing. He embodies the dog, lying on his back to have his stomach tickled, lapping up food, bounding across the floor with his master, the Baker. But he gets his revenge when a hag gives him a magic potion to turn his wife into a horse, which he beats every day with a whip.
The tales are both moral and horrific, featuring lots of dead bodies cut into many pieces, one of which is miraculously stitched together by a blindfolded tailor so that it may receive a proper burial according to traditional custom. Ali Baba's forty thieves are killed horribly by a servant girl pouring boiling oil over their heads. The thieves' captaion has his throat cut by the same servant doing the Dance of the Dagger. Three babies are stolen from their mother, while their father, the King, believes wicked midwives who say his wife gave birth to a dog, a cat and a mole. Social Services would have had a field day.
There are heroic challenges too: ancient sages with good advice which is inevitably ignored, with two princes becoming stone. Rescued by their clever little sister, they are reunited with their royal parents. All good traditional fairy tale stuff, with humour, grace and a wonderfully light yet gruesome touch.
Played in the round, the action is all about you, at different levels and from all angles. It draws you in, weaving fragments of cues. The waving of birds across the theatre lifts you skywards by no more than your imagination, grabbed via a leg of meat embossed with diamonds. Fantastically, you soar out of the dead valley. And much falls from the sky too: a noose for a botched hanging; precious jewels; floating papers; flickering starry lights and half a sheep.
And just at the right moment before the first interval when we're beginning to flag from sheer excitement we are treated to the story of the Fart - or How Abu Hassan Broke Wind. Right in the middle of his wedding celebrations. The reverberation is so loud and prolonged that it stuns both actors and audience, who for a moment can't quite believe it. Humiliated, Abu leaves for India for 10 years – it's that bad. He returns to see if all is forgotten, only to find that the year he farted was still the most notable date in the entire community calendar.
And this tale marks the beginning of the change in the King, for he laughs. In part two Sheherazade completes his reformation and becomes pregnant, after one thousand and one endless nights on the huge two-storey double bed.
The Library Theatre Company have excelled themselves. Their array of props is amazing yet simple and much is owed to the inventiveness of designer Hayley Grindle. Wonderful live music accompaniment is played by Arun Ghosh and members of the cast, and there are closed captions to ensure you don’t miss anything. The audience, young and old, loved it.
So leave your rationality at home. Go and watch Arabian Nights at The Lowry and be charmed, enchanted and utterly bewitched.