Why Shakespeare wasn’t the first to feature star-crossed lovers

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As Rifco’s new musical Laila heads to Leeds, Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to the company’s artistic director about a tale of star-crossed lovers.

It’s a theatre company that gets great reviews and has fans across the country – fans who rarely otherwise go to the theatre – and it’s a theatre company that stages sell out shows.

Yet, according to artistic director Pravesh Kumar, Rifco can still struggle to get theatre buildings to buy into its shows.

“This is why we exist,” says Kumar. “We want the audiences at our shows to be as diverse as our casts on stage. Often when I see work that is allegedly diverse on stage, the audience is still very white. We are one of the only companies where the audience is genuinely diverse and mixed and that is something we see all over the country. Despite that, it’s still a struggle. When it comes to selling a show like this to theatres, they have never heard of the story and they’re nervous and not sure they want to book it.”

The show Kumar describes is the new musical from Rifco, Laila, and the story on which it is based originated in Persia in 7AD. It is a story of star-crossed lovers, set apart by their warring families.

Sound familiar?

When Byron called it the Romeo and Juliet of the East, maybe he was getting a little confused: the Persian version predates Shakespeare’s take on star-crossed lovers by several centuries.

“This is our love story, it’s important to us. I wanted to tell this story,” says Kumar. “Over the last 15 years we have really engaged with our audiences and, I suppose, being British Asian myself, I’m always looking for the stories we tell to be truthful and organic. You come to the theatre on a Saturday night when our shows are being performed and you will see that the audience is 80 percent from the South Asian diaspora.” As a theatre company, Rifco is exceptionally successful at what it does. With hits like Britain’s Got Bhangra and The Deranged Marriage, the company has a reputation for making work this is unashamedly populist. Kumar argues that this does not mean the work he makes does not also have artistic merit. “I think we are tarnished with this brush of making bold Bollywood comedies, which is something we did a long time ago,” he says. “Even Britain’s Got Bhangra, the last musical we did, was a celebration of multiculturalism in Britain.” This latest story is one recognised by the Asian audiences the company attracts. Dealing with themes that inspired Shakespeare centuries later, it tells of warring families and the choice of following either one’s heart, or one’s duty. Kumar sees the resonance with the British Asian experience today.

“Talking to young people who are having the same kind of issues in Britain today, the story became even more important to retell, but I wanted to tell it from a British Asian point of view. Our Laila is a British Pakistani girl from Bradford. It’s unfortunate that the tragic tale is still relevant today, but it does make it important for us to tell today.” Anyone expecting a tragedy, however, need not brace themselves. “This show is a spectacle, it’s a real visual treat, the choreography is really beautiful and the storytelling style uses a lot of movement.” Sounds absolutely Rifco, which is no bad thing.

West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 4- 8. Tickets 0113 213700.

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