London, United Kingdom – In a large room of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London-based quarters, a rehearsal ensemble begins to work.
Nadim Namaan, 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 knee-deep in final preparations for Rumi: the Musical, a stage production that brings to life the story of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the respected Persian poet.
Rumi expressed his ideologies through music and dance, Namaan, who plays Rumi, told Al Jazeera during a break from rehearsals “the components of musical theater”.
The idea for the play came to life when the team decided to “take his text and make scenes and songs … and see what happens,” Namaan said.
Known simply as Rumi, the Sufi poet’s aphorisms are endlessly quoted in the West – found in the lyrics of songs by pop stars from Madonna to Coldplay, on accessories sold online, or spread on social media messages hoping to inspire .
But Rumi, still the top-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’s the authentic Rumi that Namaan and Al Fardan hope to bring audiences worldwide – played by those representing the region he hails from.
“Throughout the Middle East, there are many fans of the arts and many fans of theater, but all their lives they have only seen Western stories on stage,” Namaan said.
“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 from the region.
“There is a lot of involvement with current contemporary Middle Eastern figures who are ‘extremist’, but you do not 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 his 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, which according to Namaan helps to humanize the deified figure.
It tells of Rumi’s encounter with the mystic known as Shams of Tabriz and its aftermath. There are rumors that the two had a love affair, even though Rumi was married with two children.
When Shams disappeared, Rumi turned to poetry and wrote 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 he felt free during rehearsals to introduce himself with a non-anglicized pronunciation of his name.
“Usually there are 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 who look like you … it’s so heartwarming.”
Benjamin Armstrong, who is of Sri Lankan descent and plays Sayyed, a friend and follower of Rumi, makes his debut at the West End.
“There’s nothing else I want to do,” he said as he celebrated part of a diverse cast.
The musical builds on the success of Al Fardan and Namaan’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 break, helped the duo discover an appetite for Middle Eastern icons.
“Dana and I as a team represent us … so many exchanges: one man, one woman, one Christian, one Muslim, one based in Europe, one based in the Middle East,” Namaan said. “We want to promote it. We want to show what happens when the Middle East and the West join forces. ”
Rumi the Musical plays at the London Coliseum on 23 and 24 November.