London, United Kingdom – In a large room of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London-based quarters, 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 mostly Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian cast and crew are knee-deep in final preparations for Rumi: the Musical, a stage production which brings to life the story of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the revered Persian poet.
Rumi expressed his ideologies through music and dance, Naaman, who plays Rumi, told Al Jazeera during a break from the rehearsals, “the components of musical theatre”.
The idea for the play sprang to life when the team decided to “take his text and make 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 paraphernalia sold online, or scattered on social media messages hoping to inspire.
But Rumi, still the best-selling poet in the US today due to translations of his work by Coleman Barks in the mid-70s, is often stripped of his Muslim identity.
It is the authentic Rumi that Naaman and Al Fardan hope to bring audiences worldwide – played by those who represent the region he was from.
“Across the Middle East … there are many fans of the arts and many fans of theatre, but they spent their whole life only seeing Western stories on stage,” said Naaman.
“We thought we would see what would happen if we incorporated that style with iconic figures from the arts and literary scenes of the Middle East.”
‘Play seeks to dispel stereotypes’
Al Fardan, who is usually based in Doha, hopes the play dispels Western stereotypes of the region.
“There’s a lot of engagement with current contemporary Middle Eastern figures that are … extremist, but you don’t get these universally accessible … beautiful 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 of Rumi’s life, before his many decades as a poet, that Naaman said helps to humanise the deified figure.
It recounts Rumi’s encounter with the mystic known as Shams of Tabriz and its aftermath. The two are rumoured to have had a love affair, even as 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, an Iranian-Canadian Tony-nominated actor who plays Shams, as well as other young actors.
A first for Hamad
Ahmed Hamad, who plays Rumi’s son Aladdin, said that during rehearsals, he felt free to introduce himself with a non-Anglicised pronunciation of his name.
“Usually, there’s one or two people of ethnicity in musicals,” Hamad, whose heritage is Sudanese, told Al Jazeera. “To look around and see a full room of creative people that look like you … it’s so heartwarming.”
Benjamin Armstrong, who has Sri Lankan ancestry and plays Sayyed, a friend and follower of Rumi, is making his debut on the West End.
“There’s nothing else that I want to be doing,” 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 the Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. That production, which returns to London in January after a pandemic pause, helped the duo discover an appetite for Middle Eastern icons.
“Dana and I as a team we represent … so many exchanges: one male, one female, one Christian, one Muslim, one based in Europe, one based in the Middle East,” said Naaman. “We want to promote that. We want to show what happens when the Middle East and the West join forces.”
Rumi the Musical will be playing at the London Coliseum on November 23 and 24.