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“Like most who are ahead of their time, she was a victim of the present.” Broken Wings explores societal expectations in 19th century Beirut. It’s a musical based on a short, poetic novel written by Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet.
First published in Arabic in 1912, the protagonist of Broken Wings shares the author’s name and several elements of his life. The novel’s Gibran and the real-life author both left Beirut at a young age after their father was sent to jail; they were both raised by their mother in the US; they both returned to Beirut as teenagers and they both left several years later. Both Gibrans also lost people they loved at a young age; several members of the real Gibran’s family died two weeks before he returned to the USA in 1902.
Despite these similarities, it is unclear whether the events of the Broken Wings novel are based on Gibran’s real-life experiences or if they are a fictional way for the author to express his political rebellion and socio-political criticisms. The musical version of Broken Wings, however, treats the story as autobiographical.
It is narrated by the ‘real’ Gibran, as a 40-year-old living in New York whose first experience of love still haunts him. Like the real Gibran, our narrator is an alcoholic. Kahlil Gibran died of cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis due to alcoholism at age 48 in New York City in 1931, so this character represents the last decade of the real author’s life when he became reclusive. The musical attributes Gibran’s alcoholism to his tragic first romance with Selma Karamy.
A portrait of Selma hangs on Gibran’s easel at the back of the stage; it is made up of soft strokes and Selma’s face is looking away from the audience. This is just one of many impressive staging details that helps set the scene of Gibran’s home in 1920s New York. The poet-narrator prepares us for the tragedy to come before we flashback to see 18-year-old Gibran arriving alone in Beirut in the late 1890s.
Gibran runs into Karim Bawab (Nadeem Crowe), an old friend, and goes to his house. There he is introduced to a kindly, rich old man named Farris Karamy (Adam Linstead); a friend of Gibran’s father before he was incarcerated. Gibran visit Karamy’s home, where he meets the man’s daughter, Selma Karamy (Nikita Johal). The two are instantly drawn together, but Selma’s happiness is cut short when an unpleasant bishop decides she must marry his playboy son.
Bishop Bulos Galib (Irvine Iqbal) is a powerful man who uses his position in society to wield influence and convince Karamy to fix the marriage between his daughter and Galib’s son. Mansour Bey Galib (Sami Lamine) is not interested in marriage, but his father’s talk of his bride-to-be’s wealth sways him. He never plans to be faithful and even says: “They say married men are the most desirable.”
Even so, it is not the bishop or his indifferent son who are the true villains of this story, although Mansour’s indifference to his wife is quite upsetting. The real monster of this story is the strict structure of societal norms in Gibran’s version of 19th century Beirut. The script, like the novel, is full of criticisms of politics and tradition. It has many great quotes which could apply to many other societies throughout history, such as: “Even if born free, we remain slaves of the laws enacted by our forefathers, which forever deny the most beautiful instinct inside of us all – to love who we love.”
The set design is detailed and effective; the backdrop is a huge screen that changes to reflect the location and time of day. It shows skyscrapers against a foggy sky when older Gibran is talking to us alone in his US study, then it transforms into an orange sunset when the chorus sing as they arrive in Beirut. Several objects, including a tree branch and a picture, are lowered onto the set and pulled away towards the ceiling. Dressed in middle-eastern inspired dress, the live band plays on either side of the stage.
Broken Wings has a moving score with excellent vocal performances all round. Nadim Naaman, who plays 40-year-old Gibran, has an impressive vocal range and strong stage presence. Nikita Johal, who plays Selma, has a good voice too, but the way she conveys emotion as she sings is what really sticks out. Her almost child-like excitement after meeting Gibran for the first time in ‘So Many Questions’ is sweet and self-conscious and really makes it seem like Johal is feeling the words that she sings. Selma is an intellectual woman who in many ways is ahead of her time, but she is also a teenager who just met a boy she likes and is then told she must marry a total stranger.
Even though the story is narrated by a man, it is primarily about the female characters. This is summarised by a quote from Gibran in Act Two: “When will the strength of women be celebrated?” Both young and older Gibran show a great deal of respect for their mother, who brought her children up by herself after her husband was jailed. Soophia Foroughi (Mother) doesn’t have many lines, but she has a distinctive, powerful voice which stands out in the chorus and she conveys her character’s wisdom and strength in her tone and physical movements.
Johal portrays Selma as sweet, meek and a very respectful daughter, but she is also well read and both very aware and very critical of women’s position in her society. During her conversations with Gibran, she talks about her frustration at how the men around her see her as weak and she is at one point brought to tears when thinking of her life as the lonely wife of a cheating husband.
This makes it hard to understand Selma’s decision to stay in her situation rather than run away with the man she loves. We know that Selma acts to protect Gibran after the bishop discovers their illicit meetings, but it’s frustrating that, despite her eloquent statements against the way her society treats women and against her husband, she decides to stay and suffer: “I know I am brave. I know I can suffer to protect the one I love.”
It isn’t the ending we want and feels almost out of place in such a feminist musical. This is, however, the story that Gibran wrote. The sacrifice, societal pressure and religious obligations that Selma felt may be hard for us to understand, but they would have resonated with Gibran’s contemporaries. The ending is tragic and seems to happen quite quickly, but it works because it makes us angry on Selma’s behalf, and angry for all the other women who have been in her position.
Broken Wings ran at Theatre Royal Haymarket from 1st to 4th August.