From the team that brought us the queer feminist epic The Lady in the Sheets comes Ishtar, a radical but no less inventive new venture from this exciting team. Set in the shadowy kingdom of the underworld, Ishtar tells the ancient Mesopotamian myth of the descent of Ishtar (the goddess of love and war) into the domain of her sister, Ereshkigal (the goddess of death). Ereshkigal and Ishtar are not exactly on speaking terms, more like shouting and metaphysical cursing terms. This is soon confirmed when Ereshkigal damns her sister with sixty curses that imprison her in the land of the dead, killing love in the human world in the process. In what follows, Ishtar is rescued by the lovable Asushunamir, and love (and presumably war) are restored.
Directors Zad El Bacha and Simran Uppal are clearly very aware of the historical and cultural context of the narrative. The story has been handed down in incomplete tablets and so any production has to be responsible with the dramatic license the gaps warrant. I was impressed by how they resisted the temptation to soften the story by overtly redemptive or cathartic overtones. Rather, as with Greek mythology, one got a real sense of the caprice and almost randomness of the way the gods interacted with each other. Ishtar herself is not portrayed as any great heroine. Rather, Leela Jadhav shows us Ishtar baiting her sister, even after she has been released from death. The directors even withhold the reason for her provocative visit and the reason of the sisters’ past grievance. We are very much put in the whirlwind of another world with its own rules and which we are trusted to immerse ourselves into.
The directors’ other stylistic additions helped greatly. One standout aspect was the decision to accompany the action with live music from an Indian harmonium and a contemporary cello. As we walk in, Shreya Lakhani’s Ereshkigal gives an impressive performance of some meditative devotional music as the ensemble cast welcome us to the land of the dead. I would recommend you come early just to hear the performance for a few minutes. If the harmonium sets the atmosphere, the cello (played by El Portner) tells the story, adding an often much needed ballast to support the action. Lakhani’s own performance was also standout: her tormented denouement while addressing Ishtar sparked my own moment of engrossment in the story.
El Portner and Kei Patrick make an affable if sinister pair as the henchmen of the goddess of death. They provide a welcome comic relief from the heady metaphysical atmosphere, especially in a scene where they address Ishtar’s rescuer, the puppy-like Asushunamir. Asushunamir (Kitty Low) was also a highlight, as her near wordless character had to be conjured entirely through a physical performance. She managed to imbibe this ‘creature’ with a childlike innocence while yet remaining a denizen of the weird, wonderful world Ishtar skillfully invites us into.