Book: Nadim Naaman
Music & Lyrics: Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman
Director: Bronagh Lagan
A mystic and poet so revered that multiple countries claim him as their own, Rumi’s poetry is as popular and relevant now as it was 800 years ago. His popularity, though, is not confined to the Arabic speaking world, for with every new translation he continues to influence and inspire. So much so, that he is often quoted as being the best-selling poet in modern day America. Now he receives the musical treatment, but to mixed results.
Born in 1207 in Balkh (modern day Afghanistan), his early years were spent moving regularly across the Middle East to escape the clutches of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire. Eventually settling in Konya, Anatolia (Turkey), by his mid-thirties he earned a reputation as a well-respected Muslim scholar and preacher – following in the footsteps of his father.
His moment of transformation came when the enigmatic Dervish, Shams of Tabriz, entered his life in 1244. This is the moment at which the show begins, and over the course of two and a half hours explores how his time with Shams profoundly influenced his path and inspired the works that inspired others.
The opening soundscape transports the audience straight into the Middle East, making full use of the almost 30-strong orchestra. Conducted and arranged by Joe Davison, his orchestrations provide a rich tapestry of sound that consistently triumphs throughout the piece.
The score has clearly been influenced by a plethora of others, and at times invokes shades of Aida, Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, and others. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean it lacks an identify of its own. The music and lyrics writers Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman clearly have a penchant for a good ballad, but unfortunately their preference quickly wears thin, leaving the audience longing for something, anything else. It quickly becomes predictable and at times pedestrian.
The principal issue with the show, however, lies with the book. Billed as an examination of the “transformative and powerful relationship between Rumi and his mentor” and its impact on his family, it covers the important events, but in a rather haphazard way, leaving little room for the story to breathe or develop. Rumi himself also comes across not as an enlightened inspirational figure, but as a naïve disciple and, of course, that might be the writers’ intention, but it does mean that we don’t see the transformation.
We see the relationship that had an impact on him, and the events that occurred, but we don’t see the change, and that is a shame. We also don’t get a sense of just how long this relationship with Shams lasted – most accounts suggest it lasted a few years, but in this show you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a few weeks. We also see glimpses of the marital strife it causes, but chances to play with that tension and drama are not taken. In fact, drama is the main thing it’s short on, particularly in the first Act.
Despite the show’s shortcomings, some of the performances are fantastic. Ramin Karimloo plays Shams with a charisma that gripped the audience as much as it did Rumi ( Nadim Naaman, again). As Kimya, Casey Al-Shaqsy is similarly enchanting with a voice that was light yet bold in equal measure. The choreography at times is fantastic too, and from the ensemble Mark Samaras stands out as a cut above.
The show is semi-staged, an approach which is perfectly fine when the content holds up and it is still a work in progress, but this isn’t reflected in the ticket prices. For a man who continues to inspire so many almost a millennium after his death, he deserves better.
Runs until 24 November 2021