Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era: Legendary singer immortalised at London Palladium for one-night only

Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era: Legendary singer immortalised at London Palladium for one-night only
Vulnerability, tenderness, poignancy, scandal and tragedy: A play that has it all, documenting renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum's legendary life, reviews Yousif Nur.
6 min read
03 March, 2020
Umm Kulthum during her concert at The Olympia, on November 14, 1967 [Getty]

The legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum was immortalised as part of a musical tribute on Monday evening at the London Palladium at the West End premiere of Umm Kulthum & The Golden Era.

Many documentaries and films have been made about her in the last couple of decades, but this was the first time that a theatre production brought to life the tale of her life onstage, complete with accomplished singers and actors.

Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian singer who was also known as "Egypt's Fourth Pyramid".

To say she has legendary status in the Arab world would be a gross understatement. Not only was she known for her powerful vocal range and working with the top lyricists, songwriters and artists of her era, but for the influence she had in politics, as she was also honoured with the Order of Virtues by King Farouk, usually reserved for politicians and royalty.

Her funeral procession in 1975 brought a staggering four million people in attendance. To this day, Umm Kulthum's music transcends time and genre far beyond the Arab world as her fans include Maria Callas, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Shakira just to name a few.

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But this was a production that was a painstaking and meticulous process – Saudi London-based producer Mona Khashoggi meticulously put together the show from finding the right sponsors, right down to who should play the supporting roles.

She was also the first female Saudi Arabian to put on a show at the London Palladium. At the intro, Khashoggi spoke about how Umm Kulthum "belongs not only to Egypt but to the whole Arab world."

The role of Umm Kulthum was played by four different women – all chronicling her life from a child, to a precocious teenager. The main role and narrator was played by Syrian singer Lubana Al Quntar and younger singer Sanaa Nabil, who is the real-life great-grandniece of Umm Kulthum.

The show also had an accompanying backing orchestra led by Syrian musical director Louai Alhenawi.

Umm Kulthum 'belongs not only to Egypt but to the whole Arab world'

The show opens with Umm Kulthum and the owner of the Olympia Theatre in Paris sitting down together discussing an offer to play there. The Parisian becomes aghast when she demands double of what Edith Piaf was paid to perform and only to play three songs.

He tells her that not many will come out to watch her sing, but Umm Kulthum replies that since France had been in Tunisia and Algeria for a long time, and many had migrated to Paris, the said nationalities would be her core audience.

We then cut to her childhood and modest beginnings in her small village. Even as a young child, it was clear she had an exceptional voice and competed in village competitions, earning money for her talents to feed her family.

Eventually, her talent would reach as far as Cairo where she was discovered by Mohammed Abu Ila who taught her the classical Arabic repertoire.

Rehearsals for the show [Yousif Nur]

Behind the scene shots during rehearsals [© Copyright 2020 Mona Khash Productions]

As an established artist in the 1930's, Umm Kulthum reached the heights of international fame and superstardom. We see a transformation in her character from vulnerable and naïve to strong and powerful, with every composer and songwriter in Egypt clamouring over each other to work with her on new songs, during what was a golden era for music.

It's at this point we witness the peak of her powers as Lubana Al Quntar portrays a fine balance between her developing characteristics. 

We witness a wide scope of different personality traits that highlight Umm Kulthum as a person. Even the patriotic, national solidarity side of her was showcased when Egypt was brought into turmoil during the 1952 revolution with the overthrow of King Farouk and the installation of Gamel Abd al-Nasser as leader of the country.  

During her later years and with her health deteriorating rapidly, she continued to work despite doctors imploring her to rest and look after herself more so soon after her operation.

The play's finale ends with a candlelight vigil with actors reading eulogies and some cast members holding enlarged photos of her.

We witness a wide scope of different personality traits that highlight Umm Kulthum as a person

The play itself had everything you'd expect from documenting someone's life – vulnerability, tenderness, poignancy, scandal and tragedy.

They were all interspersed with Umm Kulthum's famous songs such as Enta Omri, Seert al Houb and Alf LaylaWa Layla, with the crowd in awe, singing along and even clapping en masse.

Director Bronagh Logan was drafted in to direct the show and she spoke to The New Arab during rehearsals in central London, "It's a rags to riches story where we see her as a young peasant girl then becoming a pillar of Egypt.

"We've split the different actresses playing her life and the band is onstage throughout, reflecting upon her life in the events that shaped her into the woman she was," Logan adds.

"I've directed another Middle Eastern story called Broken Wings, the producer of that introduced me to Mona Khashoggi and thought it would be a good partnership to tackle such an iconic figure in the history of Arab music."

Despite her role as director, she admitted that she wasn't very aware of Umm Kulthum's repertoire before taking on the gig. But Logan added that once she had done her research, she discovered how unbelievably prolific she was in the Middle East.

"I'm surprised that it hasn't translated across as much and I feel very honoured to be asked to be part of telling her story," Logan said.

She also said mentioned that auditioning for the role of Umm Kulthum had a huge role to play, crediting Lubana Al Quntar for her fantastic voice and for knowing so much about the legendary singer.

"For me, the challenges I faced (in this musical) were to fit the voice within the character of Umm Kulthum," Lubana Al Quntar tells The New Arab.

"I'm playing her role in a concert, therefore I have to move and act like her. At the same time, I have to play her role with my voice but I'm used to doing that anyway because I'm an opera singer, which is all about acting and singing.

"I'm excited because this will be the first time I will sing and act in Arabic. When I sing opera it is a challenge because you can't miss a thing. You can't even take a breath at the wrong time," she adds. 

"With playing Umm Kulthum, it's the same thing because it's not any other singer we're talking about. It's not just about singing and enjoying these songs, no. There's a responsibility that we have to be very accurate and ask why she became the premier singer in the Arab world. It's because certain aspects made her achieve greatness."

As for where the theatre production goes after Monday's one night only performance, the long-term plan is to tour it across the world.

"It's an ambition of ours to do a world tour," Logan explains.

"I know that Mona would love to take this show beyond London. And what with London being a theatre capital, this is a great launchpad to do that, with what we want to achieve."

Yousif Nur is a freelance journalist, with a particular focus on music and culture in the Arab World. His journalism work has been featured in The Guardian, Telegraph, Dazed & Confused, Middle East Eye, Vice amongst many others. 

Follow him on Twitter: @yousifnur