Sadler’s Wells, London
The programme informs us that Ishq is London’s first Anglo Punjabi Sufi musical. It is based on the legendary folklore of the romance between Heer and Ranjha. Isq uses classical and modern dance, poetry and fusion to convey the fable, written in the eighteenth century, by Punjabi Sufi and poet Waris Shah.
I loved the pre-recorded classical Punjabi songs and much of the live singing. The choreography, performed by an enthusiastic cast, was an entertaining mixture of classical and contemporary dance. The set, colourful and cartoon-like, was projected onto a backdrop. The costumes were lush, rich, multi-coloured and gorgeous.
At the start of the play Ranjha is playing a flute and there is melodic singing from a male singer. A palatial building is projected onto the backdrop. Ranjha sits on the ground in front of this building rocking back and forth repeatedly chanting “Heer.” A Sufi narrates, after responding to complaints about Ranjha, from men who had been worshipping in the building.
The Sufi asks “who is more devoted, you and your fragile worship or him [Ranjha] and his blasphemous love worship?” This sets the tone for Isq, giving the characters and the audience the various morals and lessons we can learn from this fable. So the play is scattered with sayings, proverbs and homilies uttered by the main protagonists at turning points in the tale.
I enjoyed watching and listening to the Dhol drummer playing Banghra beats at various intervals in the play. At one point the drummer draws the ensemble into dancing and encourages the audience to clap along. The drummer enabled transitions in scenes to occur in the background and costume changes off stage.
The dance routines were good fun. I especially liked the fight scene played by a male ensemble who danced, sang, tumbled, leapt and fought in an excellently choreographed and performed routine. It contained a mixture of classical and modern dance, as well as acrobatics and stunts.
Overall the performances were deliberately stylised, like a pantomime or cartoon, with actors facing the audience when they spoke. The main protagonists were caricatures of “goodies” and “baddies,” who spoke in English using rhyming verse. This is vividly demonstrated in the character of Heer’s Uncle Kaido, played by Adnan Jaffar, who declares his intentions and villainy during his first musical number. If you are in any doubt, his evilness is manifested in physical form by his pronounced limp, as he drags his body across the stage, leaning heavily on a stick and shakily singing in a Broadway musical style. He is the archetypal villain, talk-singing that he is sick and perverted, secretly in love with his niece Heer, and “destined to create chaos and make life a living hell.”
There were some outstanding performances, including by the actor Rasheeda Ali who plays Heer and sings in a beautiful soprano voice. When Ranjha and Heer meet, she sings about her feelings for Ranjha in a lovely Broadway/Hollywood musical style ballad. Heer’s solo is accompanied by a solo female dancer, dancing a lyrical routine in a combination of classical and contemporary styles. I also enjoyed the duet between Heer and Sehti, her sister-in-law, played by Rachel Viccaji, who also has a lovely voice. Another Broadway musical number which I found particularly entertaining was when Ranjha’s father, played by Ifran Damani, showed his self-doubt in the refrain “I am a shallow man,” also sung in a wonderful voice.
As well as telling of the romance between Ranjha and Heer, Isq deals with the nature of good and evil, forced marriage, family honour and female independence. Heer’s family’s threat to kill either Ranjha or Heer and her brother’s attempts to kill Heer is prevented by Heer singing another Broadway musical number with the refrain “What will you tell the creator?” Unfortunately for Heer and Ranjha there is no happy ending.
Isq fascinatingly juxtaposes pre-recorded classical Punjabi music and dance, with live Banghra beats, Broadway/Hollywood music, dance and singing. Although skilful and entertaining, I sometimes found this musical mash-up clashed. There were strong performances from the cast playing caricatures, using English rhyming verse, song and dance, providing solid family entertainment.
ISQ is at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Ave, Islington, London EC1R 4TN, Thursday 7th – Saturday 9th September 2017.