Khalil Gibran, begins Shakespeare and Laozi, is the third bestselling poet worldwide of all time. Bet you didn’t know that. Born in Lebanon during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, Gibran moved to Boston, USA, as a boy, and returned at 18 to attend school. Set in Beirut in the summer of 1901, Broken Wings was his first poetic novel. An autobiographical account of Gibran’s first love, it has now been adapted into a musical by Nadim Naamaan and Dana Al Fardan. Narrated by an ageing Gibran (Nadim Naamaan), pacing in his study, he reminisces about his first love, Selma (Nikita Johal), and how their story tragically ended.
It’s your classic love story really, boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl comes from a wealthy family with a good name, girl must marry into another wealthy family with a good name, boy is sad for a bit but then gets on with life, girl is unhappy until the day she dies (which is a little while later in childbirth). Sorry, that’s a spoiler, but it’s fairly obvious from the get-go that their relationship is doomed. Broken Wings may be ‘soaringly romantic’, but the real tragedy here is poor Selma. Try as they might, she and Gibran just can’t work around the rules and traditions they’re expected to follow, and so they’re separated. A victim of her time, Selma is married off to some horrible bloke who heads out on the pull most nights so his Uncle, Bishop Bulos Galib (Irvine Iqbal), can nab her family fortune. Meanwhile, she’s at home daydreaming about Gibran and praying she’ll soon become pregnant, not to please her husband, but to ease her loneliness and end her misery. She gives birth to a child and then tragically dies. Gibran cries at her grave for a bit, but then off he trots back to America, and they all sing a lovely song about ‘going home’. Either the real-life Gibran got over that very quickly, or this adaptation did a poor job of recognising how utterly devastating that must have been for him. Selma’s plight feels a little brushed over, while Gibran’s resilience is praised.
The cast make a strong ensemble, Johul as Selma is sweet and strong, in both character and voice. Houchen is an excellent performer as is the young Gibran. Although his casting as a Middle Eastern man does leave a bad taste in my mouth, why not cast someone who is actually from the region in which it is set? Soophia Foroughi as Mother gives a standout performance, and has a marvellous voice and commanding presence, as does Nadeem Crowe as Gibran’s friend and confidant, Karim.
The music, while stirring and romantic, is also rather slow. This is unlike any other ‘musical’ I’ve seen, in that there are absolutely no upbeat numbers. It is ballad, after ballad, after ballad, and they’re always either an outpouring of love, or a self-pity party. For good reason, obviously, but still rather melancholy to watch. Broken Wings is sentimental, dreamy, and a love letter to Lebanon – it captures the lyricality of Gibran’s poetry – but it’s also a little bit depressing. It’s like a Middle-Eastern Romeo & Juliet, and despite the ending being bent into the shape of ‘happy’, it doesn’t quite fit. The production is beautiful, but you won’t be tapping your foot and humming a tune on the way home.
Broken Wings is playing at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 4 August
Photo: Marc Brenner