Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre review: Umrao: The Noble Courtesan, reviewed by The Scotsman’s Billy Barrett.
Adapted by Simon Mundy from an 1899 novel by the Urdu novelist Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Umrao is the story of a young girl sold into sexual slavery in colonial India.
Born Amiran and renamed by her captors, our heroine has a passion for poetry and a natural gift for dance – traits that earn the affections of noble patrons, but leave her vulnerable to exploitation.
The decline of the Mughal empire and strengthening of British rule provides an interesting political backdrop to the action, as the venerated house of courtesans becomes more of a drop-in-and-out brothel for colonial officials, leading to the loss of traditional customs.
Underscored by a live band that atmospherically captures the setting and brings an evocative tone to the narrative, this production is aesthetically powerful but dramatically unaffecting, owing to a few wooden performances and a stilted, unimaginative script. The dance sequences are skilfully performed, and easily outshine the dialogue in between.
As another take on an oft-adapted classic – there are several Pakistani and Indian film versions of Umrao’s story – it misses an opportunity to explore the sexual and gender politics of the novel, but the production is a charming enough piece of sentimental storytelling that showcases traditional arts and performance forms.
Assembly George Square studios (Venue 17) until 31 August / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 28 August 2015
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