Arabian Nights, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

RSC cloaked in borrowed robes
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The Independent Culture

It was a melancholy moment earlier this week when The South Bank Show was effectively muscled off our screens by the forces of philistinism. But I confess that I experienced a faint sense of disappointment when I discovered that the final edition was focused on the Royal Shakespeare Company and its adventures in mounting its on-going Russian season. I have no doubt that the RSC is an essential component in British and world culture. Through what other channel could you transmit through the generations vital areas of wisdom about Shakespeare, ranging from the technical to the philosophical? All the same, I do feel that, for theatrical excitement and on-the-pulse penetration, the RSC currently lags behind the National Theatre, the Young Vic and the Royal Court, even allowing for the objection that this is to compare lemons, limes, and kiwi fruit. To that extent, the final South Bank Show was not bang on the money.

A case in point is the RSC's current Christmas show, Arabian Nights. I saw it on a Saturday matinee with an audience of non-first-night punters who ran the full age gamut. They had a good time. I had a good time. But I also nursed some reservations, not to do with the quality of the performance, which was excellent, but concerning what the programming of this piece perhaps betokens about the company now.

The show is expertly adapted/scripted and beautifully directed by Royal Court supremo, Dominic Cooke. The trouble is that it's a remounting of a piece he executed more pointedly at the Young Vic in 1998. Also, this is the second time that, for its Christmas show, the RSC has resorted to this, having had Laurence Boswell recently remake his Young Vic adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Performed on a disc-like inner stage against a reflecting wall, this Arabian Nights is a highly skilled feat of story-telling, with Ayesha Dharker a bewitching Shahrazad at its centre. There are wonders of spectacle (the capes of the chorus of thieves are whipped back to reveal golden linings that crystallise into the cave stuffed with the ill-gotten lolly in the Ali Baba tale). There is spirited farce, as when the Fatal Fart in another story detonates organised chaos amongst the cast. There's genuine precision in the unfolding of stories-within-stories and in arranging concentric circles of fabulation. The goriness and ghoulishness are not stinted, but they are not going to necessitate too many interventions from the St John Ambulance brigade.

So what's not to like? Is it picky to say that this is no breakthrough, where the National Theatre's The Cat in the Hat most certainly is? Resurrecting a show which originated elsewhere is not the most, well, original thing that the RSC could have done with its resources. Contrast this with the excellent in-house adaptation (again by Cooke) of the race-reversing novel Noughts & Crosses a couple of years ago and you may feel that the company is here playing safe and being a mite evasive on the creative front.

To 30 January 2010 (0844 800 1110)

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