THEATRE / Love in a warm climate: Paul Taylor reviews Heer Ranjha at Stratford East

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The affronted heroine hoists her leg to kick out at the man who has dared to fall asleep on her couch. Waking up with a start, the hero clutches at her instep and for a few brief but heady moments, it looks as if one of the most famous love stories in Indian literature is going to begin with a toe-job. Whatever next you wonder: Kama Sutra positions performed in a Chelsea strip? Not quite, alas, though it quickly becomes clear that there is more afoot here than an impromptu pedicure. Within seconds of clapping eyes on the intruder, the heroine is saying things like 'should I take another lover, let leprosy eat this, my flesh,' and smouldering in a manner that's tantamount to arson. We're clearly in for a Grand Passion laid out in bold capitals.

With lots of impish inverted commas en route, though, in Jatinder Verma's delightful production-adaptation for Tara Arts, now mounted as the company's first venture with the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Heer Ranjha is based on Varis Shah's 18th-century tragic poem, itself based on one of the Punjab's most celebrated legends which tells of the star-crossed love of Heer (Shelley King), daughter of the high-born Syals, and Ranjha (David Tse), who comes from lowly herdsman stock. There are obvious affinities with Romeo and Juliet in the situation (it, too, ends in the erection of a monument), but Verma is intent on us noticing how both protagonists are much more overt non-conformists than Shakespeare's couples.

'Only a poof plays the flute,' jeers one of Ranjha's brothers. More interested in making music and in cavorting with women than in manly toil, the hero challenges Punjabi conceptions of masculinity, a feature Verma emphasises by casting a slightly girlish Hong Kong actor in the role. The heroine is similarly at odds with stereotypes. Juliet may be venturesome, but she's still a vestal compared to Shelley King's erotically provocative Heer. And feisty is not the word. Leered over by her lame, sexually interested uncle, she retorts, 'if you dare speak, I will dangle you from the next tree, and not by your good foot either'. This destructive figure (well played by Yogesh Bhatt) is the butt of a string of cripple gags which show how differently minded folk then were about the differently abled.

A contest between the demands of love and of custom, the piece is stage with all this company's customary flair for colourful spectacle, heightened gesture, expressive movement and control of atmosphere by an on-stage percussionist. Banners shaped like the sails of miniature yachts fill the stage and metamorphose into mosque doors, say, or the sides of a carriage. The lyrical and the earthy, the painful and the preposterous can coexist in the mood Verma deftly creates. You can't help laughing that the sounds by which the gagged Heer 'agrees' to an arranged marriage are the gasps caused by her uncle thumping her in the back. The farce doesn't weaken the tragic force.

There are details, though, that could have been made clearer for the uninitiated Westerner. How far did Heer accede to her poisoning? When Ranjha lowers his glittering headdress, does this represent suicide? Those of us who were there on a tourist visa needed bigger signposts.

Continues at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15 (081- 534 0310).