WITH the promise of being swept away by a divine, unbridled love story, ISHQ elicited high hopes.
The first “Anglo-Punjabi Sufi musical,” the show marks 70 years since of Pakistan’s independence from Britain.
Based on the tragic romantic legend of Heer Ranjha, very similar to Romeo and Juliet, the production is visually stunning.
The costumes are vibrant and there’s an elaborate set, with sumptuous fabric ingeniously used to represent rippling green fields and riverboats, while projected backgrounds of lush sun-dappled forests, ornate mosques and the fiery sunsets of the Punjab take the breath away.
But the show doesn’t move seamlessly, nor is its dramatic impact profound. This tale of passionate love between the beautiful Heer (a formidable Rashida Ali) and the pampered young man turned flute-playing ascetic wanderer Ranja (Kansia Pritchard) is let down by a lacklustre script.
The simple rhyme becomes somewhat predictable and technical and stage management mishaps hinder the actors, many of whom are making their professional debut. Others are more experienced and there’s a sense of imbalance in the performances overall.
The significance of separation, remembrance and reunion in love — often described as an allegory of the relationship between man and God — is lost among the colourful proceedings and there’s a melodramatic treatment of important worldly issues such as forced marriage and honour killings.
Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, takes a back seat so that the show could fit into the confines of any tame West End musical or Disney film.
Even so, the piercing flute music played by Ranja evokes some magic and an energetic traditional drummer livens proceedings during set changes.
The music creates a real celebratory atmosphere but I’d have liked to have seen more elements of Pakistani culture — the Punjabi language used in parts of the script goes down well with speakers in the audience.
But such smatterings of authenticity are thwarted by the dilution of the theme of eternal love in a production that’s disjointed and confused.