Matthew Lunn reviews Broken Wings, a new musical by Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Theatre Royal Haymarket
2 August 2018
I must confess myself to be unfamiliar with the work of Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher whose work inspired this musical. On seeing Broken Wings, the story of his first love and how he came to lose her, I felt compelled to examine his work, and get to know him a little better. This musical offers glimpses of his life, his loves and his character, and one experiences moments of undeniable pleasure in the richly woven images of turn of the century Beirut. There is wonderful music, the work is sincere and admirable in its themes – in these dispiriting times, any piece that rails against women’s commodification is to be applauded. Yet its earnest depiction of love is rather unsatisfying, the goodness and villainy of its characters too simplistic, and the overall experience speaks of lost potential, though perhaps not as intended.
The musical begins with a middle-aged Gibran (Nadim Naaman) speaking from his study in 1920s New York, living an outwardly comfortable life yet tormented by unending heartbreak. He explains that, as a young man (played by Rob Houchen), he moved from America back to Beirut, unchanged since childhood, and fell for a girl named Selma Karamy (Nikita Johal). They quickly develop an extraordinary love for one another, but fate has something wicked in store. For Selma’s father (Adam Linstead), a kind-hearted and well-respected man, is beholden to the societal pressures of Beirut’s upper echelons, so when the wicked bishop Bulos Galib (Irvine Iqbal) asks for her hand on behalf of his selfish nephew, Mansour (Sami Lamine), he must acquiesce. The lovers part, and Selma and Mansour marry. Yet when her father falls ill, young Gibran is brought back into her life, with devastating consequences.
I was rather taken with the programme notes from the conductor, Joe Davison, which described the contemporary classical instrumentation as “[painting] a picture of Gibran’s Lebanon as if a memory, a sketch of his homeland”. This, he suggests, is embellished by the orchestra being “positioned on stage bursting out of Gibran’s New York studio”. The decision to put 20s New York at the back of the stage, with scenes in Lebanon playing out at the front is well judged, and the music cannot be faulted for its passion, and the feelings of aching nostalgia that it conjures.
The lyrics and script, however, include far too many mishandled turns of phrase, with beautiful observations (such as love compared to the branches of a cedar tree) flavoured with far too much exposition. I continually felt that I was being told, rather than shown how to feel. Houchen and Johal were both very capable in the lead roles, and strong singers, yet they could not make me understand why Selma and Gibran were so inexorably drawn to one another – Naaman’s powerful performance as the older Gibran does much of the leg work. In the play’s second half, we hear Selma’s impassioned speeches on the subjugation of women, which are powerful in themselves, yet in the context of the story, incomplete without a dialogue. It is emblematic of what is so frustrating about their relationship – they do not speak to each other, they declare, and are demonstrative without demonstrating any of the playfulness, humour or intellectual kinship that would show us what they mean to each other. Though the musical plays with the prospect of “love at first sight”, it did not do enough to show me that their passions spoke of more than the youthful lust of two kind, but not kindred spirits.
The depictions of the bishop and Mansour, the villains of the piece, posed further problems. Along with Nadeem Crowe’s turn as Gibran’s schoolfriend, Karim, these were the most enjoyable performances, in part because they were more nuanced than the piece gave them credit for. We are forever being told of how the bishop is evil incarnate, and has everyone in his control. Yet he is at times oddly sympathetic, chastising his nephew for emotionally neglecting Selma, and clearly unimpressed by the suggestion that her struggles to have a child are a sign of inferiority. Mansour, in turn, is thoughtless and self-centred without being cruel – a spoilt and naïve child. Both men are undoubtedly unpleasant, but the piece steers too far from the natural conclusion that they are products of their society. I longed for Beirut to emerge as the anti-hero of the story, at once a fertile ground for olive trees and secret assignations, yet blackened by the dark heart of immutability. This idea is on the periphery, and the musical would have been far stronger had its creators played it out to the full. Instead, the occasional depictions of society’s unabashed cruelty are unfulfilled, and seem solely for the purpose of galvanising the tragedy of Gibran and Selma’s love story.
Broken Wings is a labour of love, and its music is a delight. Yet its central love story, played out against the backdrop of turn of the century Beirut, is unconvincing, and far less compelling than the occasional glimpses into the city itself.