First Night: Freed from shadow of the fatwa

Haroun and the Sea of Stories National Theatre London

A HAPPY irony, to begin with. Just a week after he was freed from the Iranian death threat, the premier at the National Theatre of a wonderfully inventive stage adaptation of the first piece of fiction Salman Rushdie wrote in the shadow of the fatwa.

Then a less happy irony. Either Special Branch have developed a sudden unprofessional passion for the art of theatre, or, to judge from the tight security at the opening night, where checking was like Heathrow without the charm, being free for Rushdie still has its 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 is also an allegorical reflection on the author's own fate.

Rashid Khalifa (Nabil Shaban), a great storyteller nicknamed the Shah of Blah, loses the Gift of the Gab and his son Haroun sets out on a daring interplanetary mission to recover it for him. This involves waging war against the fearsome Khattam Shud, the Prince of Silence, who has poisoned the life-giving Ocean of Stories and who eats light with his bare hands. This destructive dignitary hates stories because they contain worlds he cannot control.

With a curtain of sumptuous saris at one end and a bank of exotic musical instruments at the other, Tim Supple's staging is the feast of kinetic communal story-telling one confidently expected of the director who gave us a splendid Grimm Tales.

Continually, his production finds witty equivalents for the pointed playfulness of the original. To convey the dark/light reversal of Khattam Shud's realm, for example, his cultists swarm round garbed in black Klu Klux Klan outfits with zipped mouths.

The groan-making puns in which the book delights find their visual counterparts in touches such as the costume of the bird, Butt The Hoopoe, which is a bare crinoline hoop (geddit?) from which he rises like a Great Crested Teddy Boy.

A rich suggestiveness is evoked with a stunning simplicity of means. For example, when Nitin Chandra Ganatra's winning Haroun stares in awe at the precious diversity of the streams of stories, their uniqueness is movingly conjured up by his training a spotlight on individual faces in the audience - including that of Rushdie, who was persuaded to come on stage to take a vigorously applauded bow at the end.

The enemy city finally collapses like a puny grey melting wedding cake; lengths of turbulent black cloth are sucked down into a trap door. There is deliciously droll use of filmed inserts and of shadow play.

A master at creating fluid ensemble, Supple regularly produces the best Christmas shows at his own theatre, The Young Vic. This year, he has stolen a march on himself.

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