Friday 3 August 2018

Broken Wings @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

Broken Wings @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

The work of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet, is known for its themes of universal love. His poetic novel of 1912 Broken Wings may be set in Beirut and details the forbidden love between a poet and a young woman betrothed to another through arranged marriage, but his illustrative descriptions of romantic longing are relatable to us all. If Gibran is the Shakespeare of the Middle East, then Broken Wings is his Romeo and Juliet – a relatively simple love story that’s ripe for reinterpretation.

And yet, while Broken Wings has been adapted to the stage and screen before, this production from Nadim Naaman and Dad Al Fardan marks the first reworking as a musical. It also marks an original Middle Eastern musical performed on the West End, produced and performed by a majority Middle Eastern cast and crew, and for simply offering something different Broken Wings deserves to be seen.

Paralleling Gibran (and named after himself), the lead character is a poet who returns to his native Beirut after years abroad in America. There he rediscovers his home, reconnects with old friends, and meets Selma – the daughter of his father’s best friend who treats him as his own son. Gibran and Selma soon fall in love, but their love is forbidden once Selma is set to marry the seedy nephew of the local bishop.

The story itself, no doubt progressive at the time and particularly so for its feminist themes, feels a little rote today. Gibran, played by Nadim Naaman and Rob Houchen as both an older and younger man, is a typical brooding Romantic tied to his books (though both men sing in impressively rich tenors), while Irvine Iqbal’s evil Bishop Bulos Galib and Sami Lamine’s sleazy playboy Mansour Bey Galib feel like pantomime villains. As Selma, Nikita Johal displays the necessary fragility of a young woman caught between her desires and the duty of marriage, but her voice reveals great inner strength during the musical numbers. The remaining periphery cast are sadly underwritten and the lengthy plot eventually winds up at a predictable end.

What this adaptation does retain, though, is the strength of Gibran’s writing. The book brims with beautiful poetry that, along with Mira Abad’s simple yet effective set design and Nik Corrall’s costumes, depict turn of the century Beirut as a place of warmth and beauty yet held back by tradition.

Arguably, the adaptation is a little too strict with Gibran’s words. Each song is essentially a soliloquy with little repetition in its lyrics, denying the audience a hook to hold on to. The show is at its best during the full ensemble numbers led by Soophia Foroughi as Mother where we finally get a tune and some rousing singing – the impact is stunning. Elsewhere, Fardan and Naaman’s score is a beautiful mix of East meets West that’s overwhelmingly melancholic. Though performed on Western instruments, many of the melodies are distinctly Arabic with the hammered dulcimer the only Arabic instrument – more of this would have been welcome.

There’s no denying the heart of this production, but it is a melodramatic work of sweeping emotion and sentimentality, each song exhaustingly performed with head to the sky and arms aloft. It’s all too easy, though, to be swept up in that emotion, in the operatic grandeur of it all. It might be lacking a lightness of touch, but the story and the new music have a timeless and universal appeal that’s in-keeping with Gibran himself.


Watch: Broken Wings runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 4th August.

Broken Wings @ Theatre Royal Haymarket
 Photos: Marc Brenner