Theatre: Welcome to the Shah of Blah

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The Independent Culture
HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES NATIONAL THEATRE LONDON

A HAPPY irony, to start with. Just a week after he was freed from the Iranian death threat, a joyously inventive stage adaptation of the first piece of fiction Salman Rushdie wrote - in the shadow of (and in response to) the fatwa - premiered at the National Theatre. Then, a less happy irony. Either the Special Branch have developed a sudden passion for theatre, or - to judge from the tight security at the opening night, where checking in was like Heathrow without the charm - being free for Rushdie still has its constricting similarities with not being so.

On one level a delightful children's fable drawing on a range of influences that stretch from the Arabian Nights to The Wizard of Oz and The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, Haroun and the Sea of Stories also is a resilient allegorical meditation on the author's own fate.

Played by the disabled actor, Nabil Shaban, who whizzes around on a wheelchair, Rashid Khalifa (aka the "Shah of Blah") is a great story-teller who loses his gift of the gab. His son Haroun sets out on an inter-planetary mission to recover it for him. This involves waging war against Khattam Shud, the ideological Prince of Silence, who eats light with his bare hands and detests stories because they contain worlds he cannot control.

With a floating wall of sumptuous saris at one end and a battery of exotic musical instruments at the other, Tim Supple's traverse staging is the feast of kinetic communal story-telling suffused with haunting Eastern melodies. His production continually finds witty equivalents for the pointed playfulness of the original. To convey, for example, the dark/light reversal of Khattam Shud's realm, the cultists swarm around garbed in black Ku Klux Klan outfits with zipped-up mouths. The groan- inducing puns in which the book delights find their exuberant visual counterparts in touches such as the costume of the benign bird, Butt the Hoopoe (Stephen Finegold), which is a bare crinoline hoop (geddit?) from which the rest of him rises like a great crested Teddy boy.

A tremendous richness of suggestion is transmitted with a stunning simplicity of means. For example, when Nitin Chandra Ganatra's winning Haroun stares in wonder at the preciously diverse streams of stories, the uniqueness of each stream and its human origin is movingly communicated as he trains his torch on individual faces in the audience - including that of Rushdie, who came on stage to take an applauded bow. The Ocean of Stories is ourselves: and, indeed, you could say that the collective narration by Supple's crack multiracial ensemble gets that point across better than the singly-authored book. Not that Rushdie succumbs to the temptation, presumably strong, given the circumstances of its creation, to play a rigidly controlling Khattam Shud- like role. There are many deliberate, comically non-doctrinaire irregularities. For example, the Princess, whose free speech the goodies are fighting for, is an enthusiastic but excruciatingly bad singer who gives vent to a hilarious distortion of PG Wodehouse's song "Just My Bill". The enemy city finally collapses like a melting wedding cake: lengths of turbulent black cloth being sucked through a trap door.

At the Young Vic, Supple regularly produces the best Christmas shows in London. This year, at the National, he has stolen a march on himself.

Booking: 0171-452 3000

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