A few days ago a show opened in Sharjah, a tiny emirate that forms part of the United Arab Emirates. Called Clusters of Light, it tells the life story of the Prophet Mohammed and for anyone who knows about Islam, there is an obvious difficulty here – Islamic convention forbids the portrayal of the Prophet in human form. None the less what has been produced is a truly spectacular piece of theatre, drawing on the latest technology, expertise from around the world, a cast over over two hundred and performed in a brand new outdoor amphitheatre, the construction of which took only 3 months.
The whole event has been on an enormous scale. According to The Gulf News, The Al Majaz Amphitheatre, based on a traditional Roman design, cost US$32 million to build, can seat 4,500 people, has 400 animated lights, 120 sound speakers, and 21 projectors as well as a hydraulic stage.
The opening performance is no less impressive in its conception and the time scale in which it was created. Clusters of Light has been put together in less than 6 months, a time frame that would, I am sure, have any mainstream theatrical producer dancing with delight. The creative team behind the project are some of the most experienced in their field, with a history of staging, literally, some of the biggest shows on Earth. I will let writer Peter Walker and photojournalist Susan Schulman take up the story from here, in a piece published in The Guardian, Islam the Opera.
It was quite a challenge, even for the crack team of theatrical experts summoned from around the world: less than six months to produce a hi-tech musical extravaganza about one of the most renowned figures in human history. Oh yes, and the title character can’t appear on stage.
But somehow it happened and on Sunday night a lavish production about the life and teachings of Muhammad, Islam’s main prophet, intended as a rejoinder to more militant interpretations of the faith, premiered at a specially built £20m mock-Roman amphitheatre in Sharjah, the small emirate adjoining Dubai.
The show had to be assembled in months by an international team that includes Piers Shepperd, technical director of the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and the man who made Danny Boyle’s creative ideas happen on stage. Now he has done the same for a show whose scope is roughly equivalent to Islam: the Opera. The 90-minute production, Clusters of Light, has the ambitious stated intent of rebranding the religion internationally.
The story is told with a cast of about 200, including some of the Arab world’s most celebrated singers, such as Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, and the Tunisian tenor Lotfi Bouchnak, with spectacular animated scenes projected around them.
An inaugural run in Sharjah will be followed by mooted tours to Malaysia, Turkey and even Paris. There are tentative plans to translate the libretto, by a Saudi poet, into other languages with a view to attracting non-Muslim audiences.
From the beginning, the production faced one particular challenge: under Islamic convention Muhammad cannot be portrayed in human form.
The first step for the team, according to Richard Lindsay, the creative director, was to watch The Message, a 1977 film about Muhammad’s life that showed the story from his direct perspective, conveniently keeping him off-screen.
“As we weren’t making a film, we didn’t have that luxury,” said Lindsay. “There’s only once in the show we refer to the prophet, and then we represent him as a source of light, which is accepted. For the rest of the time we didn’t need him in the story, as it revolves around him. The show is about what he’s doing, but it doesn’t actually need to show him.”
The production is lavish to an almost Bollywood extent, with images projected to a huge screen behind the cast, forming the background scenes, sometimes animating to interact with the on-stage action or provide images such as a falcon seemingly soaring above the audience.
Gavin Robins, the director, with a background in the somewhat different world of the Eurovision song contest and stage productions such as How to Tame Your Dragon, describes it as the most technically advanced show he has worked on, and one of the most dramatic. “You could describe it as a romantic thriller,” he said. “When we first rehearsed the scene about the prophet’s death, the entire company was genuinely weeping. It’s a gift to be able to take that energy from a cast.”
Shepperd said his involvement changed his view about the religion’s take on several subjects, for example the position of women.
He said: “If you look at the popular misconceptions about Islam, that isn’t the case at all. It’s great to be working on a show that explores those kinds of things.”
Whatever the intended message, the broader cultural context is arguably slightly more complex. Sharjah is sufficiently traditional to possess a set of “public decency rules” that prohibit, among other things, men and women being alone together in public unless they are married or related. The author of the libretto, Abdulrahman al-Ashmawy, has reportedly written a poem criticising attempts by women in his native Saudi Arabia to be permitted to drive. However, the man ultimately overseeing Clusters of Light, Philippe Skaff, said he welcomed Sharjah’s ambitious scheme from the very personal perspective of a Lebanese Christian: “As a Christian Arab, if anyone feels threatened by extremism, it’s us. It’s very comforting to see a work like this commissioned.
“At the start of all this the sheikh told me, ‘If we don’t do this, if we don’t spread the real message of Islam, we’re letting the extremists take over. This is our way of responding to them.'”
In an article for The National, the Bahraini composer of Clusters of Light, Khalid Al Sheikh says it is a story for all nations and times. Interestingly, Al Sheikh worked with German composer Christian Steinhauser and the music was recorded by the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. Another piece in The National, also by Afshan Ahmed, gives an idea of the complexity of, and technology behind, the staging.
During the rehearsal, a 12-tonne cube slowly appears from behind white scrim. A computer-generated grid pops up and in seconds is replaced by animated images of a marketplace.
“This is not a cinema screen where you have one big projector,” says Hai Tran, the head of technology at Multiple & Spinifex Group, a Sydney-based creative projects company that produced the show. “This involves projecting from all over the arena to get the whole environment looking right.
“The cube is very dynamic. We use it as a stage and it also turns into the Kaaba during the show.”
The commercial for the show (below) gives a very clear picture of the epic nature of what has been produced.
Now it has to be said something on this scale, and created in this timeframe, can only be achieved by a nation with a lot of money and the ability to hire the best the industry has to offer, but you can’t but applaud the vision. Also, as Peter Walker comments, the broader cultural context of the project might raise a few eyebrows elsewhere in the world, and perhaps this can’t be ignored. Having said this, I think if found myself in Sharjah tomorrow I would probably – no, almost certainly – find myself in the audience.