“Jonny Dixon’s superb puppets and masks feed our imagination and enhance this youthful yet enlightened production”
Iris Theatre presents a new, pertinent version of the ‘Arabian Nights’, turning Hoxton Hall into a wonderland of illusion. Rich colours, masks, puppets, dance and music blend and fuse with the narration to take us on a familiar journey, but down a different path. Nessah Muthy’s heartfelt rewriting of this centuries-old treasure adapts the framework of the story to show the strength and independent minds of women. King Shahryar finds revenge for his wife’s unfaithfulness by marrying a new wife every day and killing her the following morning. When he decides to marry Dunzayad, his young servant, her older sister, Sharazad, uses her gift of storytelling to buy time and save her. In doing so, she gradually sees behind the king’s brutal façade and challenges him, questioning her own feelings as well. Muthy also adds clever twists of gender within the tales, giving them a modern relevance.
Director, Daniel Winder, masterfully interprets the script with art and inspiration. Jonny Dixon’s superb puppets and masks feed our imagination and enhance this youthful yet enlightened production. The lighting (Ben Polya) and sound (Filipe Gomes) add magical and dramatic effects and a constant stream of additional details holds our attention – Amber Scarlett’s resourceful set design, evocative music and dance (Sonum Batra and Nour Alkawaja) and colourful costumes by Maddy Ross-Masson.
The well-chosen, multi-cultural cast poignantly reflects the rich origins of the ‘Arabian Nights’. The six actors cover a multitude of roles as well as manipulating the puppets with dexterity, allowing us to enjoy the fantasy. We not only hear of Ali Baba and Sinbad; brothers and sisters, princesses, husbands and wives, sailors, kings and queens and animals all play their part in recounting adventures, myths and morals. There are varied and vivid performances from Ikky Elyas and Maya Brittoa, Hemi Yeroham’s comic flair, Pravessh Rana’s powerful presence on stage, Izzy Jones’s portrayal as the spirited sister and a special mention for Sharon Singh as Sharazad, who elegantly holds the main plot together with the many narrative diversions.
The first half of the show takes a while to flow. Once we break through the slightly ‘theme park’ feel of the repetitive, pre-show piped music, the imitation stone of the set (from the audience’s close proximity) and the initial impact of the broad acting, we can appreciate the huge amount of thought, work and talent. It is neither a children’s show nor more suitable for adults; seemingly, it has something for everyone. And, at two and a half hours long, there is plenty of time to find it.
“the rip-roaring finale in the church brought the audience to its feet in an explosion of cheers and applause”
This is Iris Theatre’s 10th season in the gardens of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. They produce two shows over the course of the summer – a Shakespeare and a family show – and this year’s swashbuckling adventure from 17th century France is a perfect confection for a family night out in London on a summer’s evening. The action takes place in three different playing arenas in the gardens themselves, and also moves into the church. Although moving between locations couldn’t help but slow things down a bit, the delight of the different mise-en-scènes more than made up for it, and the rip-roaring finale in the church brought the audience to its feet in an explosion of cheers and applause.
Dumas’ original novel is a behemoth of a book, and credit must go to Daniel Winder, Iris Theatre’s Artistic Director, for distilling it into a largely comprehensible two hour play. The younger children in the audience would certainly have found elements of the story confusing, in particular differentiating between the the national conflict – England vs France – and the French religious conflict – Catholic vs Huguenot – but the pursuit of the Queen’s diamonds was a good thread for them to follow, with excellent visual cues to help them through the more labyrinthine plot developments. Paul-Ryan Carberry’s sure-handed direction steered a steady course throughout, using elements of slapstick and pantomime with a deft touch to balance the darker themes and more baroque plot twists. In addition, Winder’s decision to turn d’Artagnan into a woman worked brilliantly, and the young female musketeer was a fantastic counterpoint to the magnificently malevolent Milady, played with immense hauteur and brio by Ailsa Joy.
Working in the open air in the middle of Central London is immensely challenging for an actor, and the predominantly young cast attacked the task with relish, and they were aided too by Adam Welsh’s excellent sound design. Inevitably, many of the performances were painted with pretty broad strokes – open air theatre is rarely the place to go for subtlety and nuance – but there was a terrific ensemble spirit, and some excellent multi-role work too, particularly from the charismatic Stephan Boyce (Planchet/Treville/Rochefort/Lord Winter) and the splendidly entertaining Elliot Liburd (Porthos/King of France).
Finally, special mention must go to Roger Bartlett, the production’s fight director. No evening spent in the company of the musketeers would be complete without some serious sword play, and Iris Theatre did not disappoint in this regard. There is something rather wonderful about hearing the church clock striking and seeing the garden’s white roses glowing in the dusk, whilst watching a mighty clash of swords, and knowing that 21st century London nightlife continues all around. A unique treat; there to be savoured.