London theater show aims to portray Rumi authentically | News

London, United Kingdom – In a large hall in the London quarters of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a rehearsal ensemble gets to work.

Nadim Naaman, a British-Lebanese singer, actor and writer Dana Al Fardan, known as Qatar’s first female composer, and a cast and crew mostly from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are knee-deep in the final preparations for Rumi: the Musical, a stage production that brings the story of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the revered Persian poet, to life.

Rumi expressed his ideologies through music and dance, Naaman, who plays Rumi, told Al Jazeera during a break from rehearsals, “the components of musical theatre”.

The idea for the play came to life when the team decided to “take their lyrics and do scenes and songs…and see what happens,” Naaman said.

Known simply as Rumi, the Sufi poet’s aphorisms are quoted endlessly in the West – found in the lyrics of songs by pop stars from Madonna to Coldplay, on props sold online or scattered across social media. hoping to inspire.

But Rumi, still America’s best-selling poet today due to translations of his work by Coleman Barks in the mid-1970s, is often stripped of his Muslim identity.

It is the authentic Rumi that Naaman and Al Fardan hope to bring to audiences around the world – played by those who represent the region where he comes from.

“Across the Middle East…there are many art fans and many theater fans, but they’ve spent their whole lives seeing only western stories on stage,” Naaman said.

“We thought we would see what would happen if we incorporated this style into iconic figures from the Middle Eastern art and literary scenes.”

The cast of ‘Rumi: the Musical’ during a rehearsal at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

“The game seeks to dispel stereotypes”

Al Fardan, who is usually based in Doha, hopes the play dispels Western stereotypes about the region.

“There’s a lot of engagement with contemporary figures in the Middle East who are…extremist, but you don’t get these beautiful, universally accessible thoughts…associated with the Middle East. [in] Western media,” Al Fardan told Al Jazeera.

The musical is based on a novel written by Evren Sharma and its 20 songs are inspired by Rumi’s poetry.

The production follows an earlier period in Rumi’s life, before his many decades as a poet, which Naaman says helps humanize the deified figure.

It recounts Rumi’s encounter with the mystic known as the Shams of Tabriz and its aftermath. The two are said to have had a romance, even though Rumi was married with two children.

When Shams disappeared, Rumi turned to poetry, writing thousands of poems dedicated to him, the Prophet Muhammad and God.

The rest of the cast includes Ramin Karimloo, a Tony-nominated Iranian-Canadian actor who plays Shams, as well as other young actors.

Benjamin Armstrong plays Sayyed, a disciple and friend of Rumi in ‘Rumi: the Musical’ [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

A first for Hamad

Ahmed Hamad, who plays Rumi’s son Aladdin, said during rehearsals he felt free to introduce himself with an unanglicized pronunciation of his name.

“Usually there are one or two ethnic people in musicals,” Hamad, who is of Sudanese heritage, told Al Jazeera. “Looking around and seeing a room full of creative people just like you…it’s so heartwarming.”

Benjamin Armstrong, who has Sri Lankan ancestry and plays Sayyed, a friend and disciple of Rumi, makes his West End debut.

“There’s nothing else I want to do,” he said, while celebrating being part of a diverse cast.

The musical builds on the success of Al Fardan and Naaman’s 2018 show Broken Wings, based on a novel by Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. This production, which returns to London in January after a pandemic hiatus, has helped the duo discover an appetite for Middle Eastern icons.

“Dana and I as a team that we represent… so many exchanges: one man, one woman, one Christian, one Muslim, one based in Europe, one based in the Middle East,” Naaman said. “We want to promote that. We want to show what happens when the Middle East and the West join forces.

Rumi the Musical will perform at the London Coliseum on November 23 and 24.