Rumi: The Musical at the London Coliseum
They say that in musical theatre, a song should have one of two functions: to push the story forward or to emphasise a feeling. In Rumi: The Musical, written by Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman, only feelings are observed, and yet they are of such broad generalisation that this biography of the singular Persian poet soon descends into boredom.
But first, what works: the vast stage of the London Coliseum is transformed into an incredible fish tank. Director Bronagh Lagan uses a wash of coloured lighting to bring his large cast into view. Staging them like figures on ceramics, he brings an appropriate grandeur to this tragic tale of friendship and betrayal.
But these figures never quite come to life. Rumi begins the play as a respected theologian and religious leader. By the end of the play, he has made the decision to become a legendary poet and thinker. Shams, an enigmatic traveller who strikes up a powerful friendship with Rumi, may be the only driving force within the play but is given no agency to change either. His role is to inspire Rumi, who acts like a sponge on stage. The intensity of their relationship (coded gay but never brave enough to admit it) is delivered across the many solos and duets that make up the musical.
Ballad after ballad hammers home the high-strung emotion that Rumi and Shams, along with Rumi’s lovesick children and treacherous allies, feel about this changing world, which reaches a crescendo of silliness at the end of act one with Shams warbling My Rumi. These distinctly Westernised musical numbers have a few oud arrangements and daf drums thrown in, but there’s nothing authentic about this portrayal of the Middle East.
Rumi: The Musical has production design to die for, and the occasional flash of magic when it uses the full chorus. But it fails to give the audience any reason to care about Rumi, and when we’re talking about one of the most influential cultural figures of history, there’s been a misstep.
Rumi: The Musical is at the London Coliseum from 23rd November until 24th November 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.