Umrao – The Noble Courtesan

Aug 27 2015 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩   Fascinating but uneven

Assembly George Square Studios (Venue 17): Thu 6 – Mon 31 Aug 2015

Boasting impressive music and dance, Asian Music Circuit’s Umrao – The Noble Courtesan is a production with deficiencies in many areas, but is thoroughly successful in others.

Umrao Jaan Adda, written by Mirza Haddi Ruswa in 1899, is often considered the first novel in Urdu. It tells of a young girl who is kidnapped and sold to the owner of a courtesan’s house, where she learns classical poetry, dance and song in order to entertain rich nobility.

Umrao - The Noble CourtesanThe portrayal of Lucknow as the Mughal era comes to an end is apparently much celebrated in South Asia, but is little known here. This adaptation, with the traditional art forms described in the book heavily represented on stage, is a good way for an audience to remedy this.

Director Vasilios Arabos, who adapted the book with Simon Mundy, has done a good job of producing a coherent, clear story that keeps moving. However, there are puzzling variations in structure. Characters are introduced without explanation – which does not matter in itself, as it is soon possible to work out who they are – yet events that occur on stage are often then unnecessarily explained.

This inconsistency unfortunately applies to the performances to an even greater degree. Manorma Joisi’s portrayal of the young Umrao has a genuine sparkle, while Natalia Hildner’s Kathak dancing as the older version is spectacular. Natasha Ali has a coldly brittle quality as the older courtesan Khanum that is impressive, but it is fair to say that some of the other performances vary in tone and effectiveness.

no shortage of spectacle

This gives much of the story a strange flatness that is very much at odds with the subject matter. On the other hand, there is no shortage of spectacle. The presence of onstage musicians adds greatly to this, not only in terms of set-piece songs, but also more importantly with almost constant, low-key but thoroughly effective music underlining themes and moods.

Unnati Dasgupta’s beautiful singing is noteworthy, as is Mehboob Nadeem’s sitar. Perhaps most impressive, however, is Amiruddin’s work on the sarangi, a bowed instrument often uncannily like a human voice, that adds emotional texture.

Whatever the faults of the production, in a Fringe seemingly ever more dominated by safe, cheap, identikit shows, an adaptation of a classic work from non-Western culture featuring such a large cast can only be applauded.

Running time 1 hour 25 minutes
Assembly George Square Studios (Venue 17), George Square, EH8 9LH
Thursday 6 – Monday 31 August 2015
Daily (not 17 or 18) at 12.10 pm
Book tickets on the EdFringe website:

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