Sunday, 10 September 2017

If fusion be the food of love, play on… ISHQ, Sadler’s Wells

Not every musical play leaves you with the theme song stuck in your head and the urge to dance all the way home and if I was just a tad less self-conscious that would have been me.

ISHQ is London’s first ever Anglo Punjabi Sufi musical and in the 70th anniversary of independence, celebrates the enduring qualities of the Sufi religion: compassion, harmony and peaceful coexistence. It’s an irresistible cocktail of classical and modern dance with a blend of poetry and fusion music that works on both heart and head.

The story of Heer Ranjha was written in 1766 by Sufi saint and poet Waris Shah and possibly based on actual characters from the Lodi dynasty in the Fifteeth Century. Shah’s poem works on a number of levels: love story as well as spiritual journey… enforced separation and reunion. Ishq is the greatest of all passionate loves and is the love of the Creator, absolute and pure.

Producer Huna Beg and director, Dr Farooq Beg, were also drawn to the story’s lessons about gender and free speech: choices enshrined in Sharia as rights according to women. It might surprise some that this eighteenth century text places such importance on the heroine’s consent in marriage but you shouldn’t always read a book by the Daily Mail cover…

As Heer says: “… let me stand on my own and I will no longer be a burden… but men like you will never do that… you fear that you will lose the power to manipulate, to control… to blame.” Even allowing for the modern translation, that’s one independent, intelligent woman.

Sadler’s Wells was packed to the rafters for the opening show in this short run and hopefully there will be more to come. There’s a dazzling mix of dance, singing and music to accompany the dance with my favourite being the two-ended drummer who had the audience trying to keep up clapping: it’s a very stirring sound.

But you can’t fail to be moved by such a joyous celebration of a culture that has contributed so much to this country as well as beyond. For many in the audience the story may have been familiar and there was a ripple when certain set-pieces unfolded but the narrative was well-presented and the script from Mushfiq Murshed made light work of the heritage.

I must also mention the set design from Declan Randall which cleverly projected different backgrounds onto a variable array of net curtains. This enabled quick changes of “scene” and looked quite stunning.

In truth, the list of contributors is too long to name check but I must also commend music advisor and flautist, Kansia Pritchard, who’s plaintive lines were so important in conveying the soulful emotional heart of Heer’s lover Ranjha.

Ahsan Khan and Rasheda Ali
As the play opens, we find Ranjha (Ahsan Khan) in pieces, mourning lost love and about to be thrown out of a mosque by three short-tempered and faint-hearted worshipers. A white-bearded Sufi (Irfan Damani) stops them and begins to explain why Ranjha is the way he is.
We quickly learn that Ranjha was once the shining light of his family, popular with almost everyone except his jealous brothers. In fairness the flute-playing dandy may well have brought this on himself but he is disturbing the peace and gets exiled for his unrelenting insistence that the flute is the key to cattle herding.

Ranjha meets his match when he encounters the lovely Heer (Rasheda Ali); after she lets him use her boat to cross a river, he’ll toot his flute for no one else but there’ s problem of Montague and Capulet proportions… he’s not worthy and her family force her into marrying at the right station but this is one occasion when “yes” doesn’t even come into it.

Adnan Jaffar
“Marriage is just a contract…” says one character and the love between Heer and Ranjha can not be overruled by legalities but torments follow as both have to learn to follow their hearts no matter what the cost.

The leads were both superb with a special mention for Rasheda Ali’s stage-strong singing. There’s also a grand turn from Adnan Jaffar as her villainous uncle Kaido who clearly relishes being the bad guy but who still manages to convey something close to likeability.

That’s key to the whole enterprise which is as good-humoured as any tragedy has the right to be.
It is a production of one of Pakistan’s leading theatre companies, Serendip, who have built a reputation as innovators through their choice of plays covering diverse modern subjects from sexual politics to drug abuse and HIV.

ISHQ’s women are independently minded and its world turns on understanding and the willingness to learn lessons. A musical for our times.

Further details of the play can be found on the ISHQ and Serendipwebsite, wouldn’t it be great to see this in the West End?

Ithankyou Rating: ****

All photographs courtesy of Lidia Crisafulli

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