The legend of Heer and Ranjha is both an earthly romance and a Sufi journey towards the creator. Probably first passed down orally more than 1400 years ago, but still very popular in Pakistan today, it was a brilliant choice for Pakistan’s first ever Anglo Sufi musical brought to Sadlers Wells by Serendip Productions. ‘Ishq’ has plenty of charm despite its many flaws. What makes the story particularly resonant for a contemporary audience is that Heer played by Rasheeda Ali, challenges the patriarchal society with courage and brilliance.

Given how old the story is, it’s more than a little unsettling to acknowledge that much of the debate has barely moved on today with honour killings and enforced marriages still a very real concern in Pakistan and beyond. The format of the show is decidedly pantomime but there are moments when the spiritual and socio-political message hit home. As Heera points out to her family who have forced her to marry a man she doesn’t love, ‘You fear that you will lose the power to manipulate, to blame’ – you say I’m a burden but I wouldn’t be if I was free. The rhyming couplets which make up most of the dialogue raise more than a few titters, ‘You are so bitter, your head is full of litter’, ‘You were not ready, perhaps not even steady’ though the philosophy they expound is fair from silly.

Sadlers Wells has seen many brilliant, sophisticated blends of Eastern and Western performance art grace the stage in the last year but ‘Ishq’, with it’s jumble of elements, and a too heavy dose of Disney is not one of these. Some teething problems such as dodgy sound and general confusion will no doubt be resolved as the run progresses but the real problem lies with a lack of directorial sophistication and an apparent absence of a musical direction for the cast who’s singing is distinctly hit and miss. That said, there are genuinely stunning visual moments with profoundly expressive movement and dance from Ashan Khan and Rasheeda Ali.
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