Seven years ago this month the death of a street vendor in Tunisia, who’s stall was confiscated by the authorities, triggered the wave of rebellions known as the Arab Spring. So there is a powerful resonance behind playwright Suhayla El-Bushra’s decision to open her new Lyceum stage version of The Arabian Nights with the destruction of a street market, and the arrest of all its traders, by the cruel Sultan of Baghdad; a sense of the bustling, hustling street life of the region, with all its wild, rude and magical stories, constantly confronting harsh and divisive rulers, and sometimes – just possibly – persuading them to change.
The Arabian Nights ***
The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
El-Bushra’s script is just one of many fascinating elements to this year’s festive show at the Lyceum; there’s also an energetic young cast, an ever-shifting set by Francis O’Connor that seems to gain in beauty and depth as the evening unfolds, plenty of puppetry and shadow-play, and the Scheherezade story itself, the urgent tale of a young woman who must tell stories to the Sultan in order to save her own life, and – in this version – to free all her market friends.
In truth, though, Joe Douglas’s production often fails to bring all its excellent strands together into a convincing whole. Perhaps it’s the lifeless amplified sound of Tarek Merchant’s recorded score, or the variable acting of a cast that sometimes seems to lack experience, or a certain vagueness about the start of Scheherezade’s storytelling enterprise, which in this version lacks the absolute urgency of the Sultan’s threat to spend the night with her, and then cut off her head; or perhaps it’s the odd half-hearted effort at audience participation, in a show that never seem quite sure whether it
wants to be a rollicking panto-style entertainment or not.
Yet even if the great, familiar stories of The Arabian Nights – Sinbad, Ali Baba, The Great Fart Of Abu Hasan – sometimes seem, here, to emerge from nowhere, they still weave their spell, particularly after the interval, when the action becomes more tightly focussed in the Sultan’s great bedchamber, which morphs into ships, oceans, and underground caverns.
Rehanna MacDonald is a lovely, spirited Scheherezade, making her case for storytelling as a vital and joyous part of life; and by the time the ten-strong cast assemble to belt out their closing song, they seem at last to have reached the level of focussed communicative energy, directed straight at the audience, that should, perhaps, have been their starting-point, and not their final curtain.
*Until 31 December