Indian History Becomes Intoxicating Theatre In Dara

By Stuart Black Last edited 45 months ago
Indian History Becomes Intoxicating Theatre In Dara ★★★★☆ 4

Nicholas Khan (Mir Khalil), Esh Alladi (Gvernor Khan), Sargon Yelda (Aurangzeb), Simon Nagra (Mullah Farooq), Rudi Dharmalingham (Danishmand). Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

This simmering Shakespearean story about Mughal India by Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem is the first play from South Asia to be staged at the National Theatre.

Beautifully directed by Nadia Fall, Dara is the tale of two warring princes — sons of the emperor who built the Taj Mahal — locked in a bitter and bloody wrangle for supremacy. As well as sibling rivalry, the two also hold opposing views on Islam, thus the outcome of their power struggle will also define the future direction of religious culture across the subcontinent.

Different actors play the princes at different ages but it is Zubin Varla as Dara, the reformed warrior, and Sargon Yelda as the Machiavellian second-in-line Aurangzeb, who dominate the stage as the older incarnations. Both embody aristocratic self-assurance though with very different inflections as the weight of expectation and the vicissitudes of life force them to confront their social positions and philosophies of leadership.

Nadeem’s play is strongest when focusing on domestic intrigue and his dialogue, adapted by Tanya Ronder, is as exquisitely-arranged as the interlocking geometrical patterns that adorn Katrina Lindsay’s fine set. Resentful arguments roll into reflective parables while legal petitions become desperate cris-de-coeur encompassing both the political and personal.

The unquestionable high-point of this extremely powerful play is an operatic courtroom scene where Dara argues that the country needs a more inclusive form of Islam even though his life is at stake should he be found guilty of blasphemy. This electric scene — which takes a long hard look at the problems of blind faith — comes in the middle of the play however and the more fragmentary second half of the production can't quite find a set-piece to match it.

If the ending feels a touch underwhelming it’s because Nadeem may be a bit too ambitious, trying to dissect all of Islam and also creating a tapestry of stories involving multiple secondary characters. Yet this ambition should be applauded: few plays are this thought-provoking, or as sumptuous. The evocative live music, serpentine swirls of incense, and the costumes and choreography create a sensory adventure that has more than enough power to transport the audience to 17th century India and grapple with profound issues that trouble us still today.

Dara runs at the National Theatre until 4 April. Tickets cost £15-50. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 28 January 2015