Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Review Ishq

Catherine Kelly manages to enjoy the spectacular design of a new Anglo-Punjabi musical, despite a deeply flawed book and score.

Book by Mushfiq Murshed
Lyrics by Farooq Beg, Owen Smith and Ian Brandon
Music by Ian Brandon and Emu Fuzön

Trying To Feel The Love

This musical, combining Pakistani and British talent, draws on a story which has delighted generations in Pakistan. It's a romantic and tragic tale from Punjabi literature, reminiscent of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Pakistan's independence, the story of wealthy beauty Heer and the flute playing cowherd Ranjha, kept apart by caste, class and religion,  arrived on the stage of Sadler's Wells promising a spectacular blend of music and dance.

Indeed, there were audible gasps from the audience as a 15th century temple and vast courtyard were conjured up as if by magic in stunning projections designed by Declan Randall.

However, the magic soon evaporated as this mutated into a jaunty  ensemble opening musical number emulating a sub-Disneyesque style from composers Ian Brandon and Emu of Pakistani pop rock group Fuzön with lyrics by  Farooq Beg, who also directs, Owen Smith, as well as Brandon.

The story of Heer and Ranjha,  immortalised in 18th century verse by Sufi saint Waris Shah,  is here adapted by Mushfig Murshed using simplistic rhyming couplets with many confusing modern references. 

This awkward mash up continued throughout an admittedly visually colourful and lavish production, with modern and traditional choreography from Owen Smith and Suhaee Abro.

The highlight of the show was undoubtedly the stunning visuals. The expanses of rural farmlands, breathtaking palace palisades and awe-inspiring Sufi temples rose up in loving, painterly detail.

Meanwhile striking geometrical patterns evoked the eternal, transforming the limited stage space into endless spiritual vistas.

Equally the glorious costumes of Samina Aslan and Rabia Sana, along with the props and jewellery of Anila Rubab, were a veritable explosion of colour in keeping with the traditional tale.

It's a pity this wasn't matched by more reliance on the traditional rhythms and music of Pakistan in what could have been a pioneering Sufi musical. Yet the creators of the score for this literary romance chose a jarring bland musical format for the adaptation instead of introducing the audience to a rich cultural heritage.

The young cast, constricted by clunky dialogue, a poorly paced narrative and clunky direction with contrived blocking, had to resort to one-dimensional, pantomine-like characterisation.

All kudos then to Arti Mirwanni–Daltry and Irfan Damani who stood out as Heera's parents adding more natural inflections to the cumbersome couplets with their characterful performances.

Other opportunities were missed. The choreography during a wrestling competition failed to capture any sense of the high stakes or excitement of athletic combat. Given choreographer Suhaee Abro's expertise in classical Indian dance, including Sufi, Kathak and Bharatnatayan, it was frustrating that none of these appeared on stage. 

There was a short mesmeric Sufi whirling sequence but this seemed to come out of the blue, existing in isolation. For the most part, the dance routines, neither traditional nor fusion, failed to make an impression as another form of story telling.

It may be the creative team are more used to staging spectacles in large stadia and heritage locations than to developing engaging stories and songs for the stage.

There's certainly potential in the Ishq story  -- Ishq means love, an earthly, passionate but pure and unconditional love - with its compelling, centuries-old storyline.

However, overall the characterisations were underdeveloped within a muddled, piecemeal, heavy handed approach and a mixed bag of musical styles, talent and performances.   Sadly, I could not feel the Ishq, earthly or otherwise although, for the visuals, it just about scrapes into a red/amber light.

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