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Review: Arabian Nights, A Revolutionary Tale for our Times

By Becky May, Volunteer Woman Reporter for Bristol Women’s Voice

In a city with a strong tradition of protest and direct action, it seems fitting that this year’s seasonal production at the stunning Bristol Old Vic has a theme of revolution at its heart.

I went to see Arabian Nights with my partner and 21 year-old daughter, aware that we are probably not the prime target audience for a family show but keen to see this production (written by Sonali Bhattacharyya and directed Blanche McIntyre) which is a modern take on the Middle Eastern collection of folk tales otherwise known as ‘One Thousand and One Nights’.

A story about storytelling

Arabian Nights is a story about storytelling itself, so let’s start at the beginning…

Sisters Schere (Yasemin Özdemir) and Dina (Sara Diab) live with their fisherman father in a land ruled by Murad, a tyrannical king (hammed up brilliantly by Nicholas Karimi, as petulant selfish man-boy) who ruthlessly exploits and oppresses his subjects.

To make matters worse, Murad has been wreaking revenge upon womankind since his wife deserted him by forcing a young ‘maiden’ to come to the palace to marry him each day, whereupon he revokes the order the following day and throws them into his dungeon.

Schere is an activist by nature, so on learning that the daughter of their neighbour has received the call-up, she at first plans to go to the palace with a placard to protest. Reminded of the dangers of protest in this police state, she conjures up a cunning plan to stop the forced marriages: she will persuade the authorities to let her take the place of her neighbour and then use her legendary storytelling powers (inherited from her mother) to tell exciting tales to the king each night which will end on cliff-hanger.In this way the king will delay throwing her to the dungeon to hear the next instalment and this will continue night after night.

A candle is lit

The plan works splendidly and Schere even enjoys the pampered life she is living in the palace, indulged by the man-boy king, and mesmerised by her new mobile phone before her storytelling powers begin to wane and the reality of a real marriage to the king starts to loom large. Meanwhile for every night a woman from the kingdom is spared a forced marriage a new candle is lit in the window of a home across the land.

The set is fairly minimalist and the costumes are far from lavish so the candlelit windows suspended from the ceiling of the theatre are a welcome and beautiful sight.

There are other nice touches: storytelling is accompanied by puppetry in the form of a winged horse and a serpent manipulated by the actors and the show features original music and singing. Some of the songs carry the plot and it is inevitably difficult to follow every word when it is sung but we heard enough to get the general gist and whilst I would say that none of the numbers are likely to become hits, they added variety to the performance.

This is not a pantomime though there is some interaction with the audience and the children in the auditorium readily rose to the occasion at the required moments.

A regime overthrown

It is probably not a spoiler to say that in the second half of the play, the king gets his comeuppance. Eventually, enough dissent has grown and when the entrapped ‘ex-wives’ effect an escape and overthrow the regime, Murad becomes the prisoner.

In keeping with its modern take though, he makes the best of his new dungeon-based situation in the tradition of many a toxic male by becoming a ‘podcast bro’, launching a series of broadcasts around self-healing and self-growth.

In a world where far from being the stuff of folklore, millions of people live in regimes every bit as repressive as Murad’s, where women’s freedoms are heavily restricted, princesses really do get locked up for having opinions, forced marriage is a massive global problem for women and girls and where protestors often pay with their lives, the themes of Arabian Nights perhaps resonate with adults a little too loudly to make this a piece of escapist drama.

But, given that much of our theatrical seasonal family entertainment is based around fairy stories, a genre that abounds in gender stereotypes more than any other, it is refreshing to see a show where women not only form the majority of the cast and where the female roles are not wicked stepmothers or passive victims but heroes with agency.

Arabian Nights is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 6 January 2024: 

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