During the last fifteen months my virtual visits to theatres in and plays from other countries has taken me round the globe more than once. Unlike the real world where the options currently seem to be shrinking again, I have been able to roam where I want, when I want, and it has been an ideal opportunity to get a better understanding of drama from other cultures which might otherwise have passed me by. However, with 195 countries listed officially by the United Nations I still have a fair way to go. At least I can now put a tick (sorry, in line with prevailing trends I of course mean an uptick) against Pakistan as this was the country of origin of my most recent delve into the National Theatre At Home archive.
Dara, written by Shahid Nadeem, was first produced at the Ajoka Theatre in Lahore in 2010 and came to the National in 2015 in an adaptation by Tanya Ronder. It retells an historical story which would be as familiar to southeast Asians as that of Henry VIII would be to Westerners, using this as a framework to comment on the sort of religious fundamentalism which is till rife today. Dara is the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, today known mostly for his creation of the Taj Mahal. An enlightened religious libertarian, Dara believes that all faiths have merit and ultimately have the same purpose and common sense of humanity. His younger brother Aurangzeb is his polar opposite, an orthodox fundamentalist believing that only Islam is the true religion and that anyone not espousing that line is a traitor. There is a struggle for power in which Aurangzeb prevails and becomes the new emperor after dethroning his father and imprisoning Dara and his sister Jahanara aided and abetted by another sibling Roshanara. Dara is put on trial for apostasy and the outcome seals his fate.
It’s an interesting slice of history, the outline of which I recall being told while visiting Agra a few years ago but Nadeem/Ronder’s play also examines events from the perspective of a family story. In the first half, events are non-linear and scenes set many years before the main narrative set the latter in context as we see the various family members growing up and finding their differing paths through life. It is akin to some of the plays created in Ancient Greece with fathers, sons, brothers and sisters pitted against each in a seemingly never ending cycle of revenge and retribution. There is also an interesting though perhaps rather tangential story line about Itbar, the imperial eunuch and his relationship with both his real and adoptive royal family; I thought that this would have made a fascinating play in its own right.
Structurally the play is somewhat uneven. The unfamiliarity of the context for most of the audience means there is a deal too much exposition in the initial half an hour and the movement between “past” and “present” takes a little getting used to. The scene central to the drama comes at the end of Act 1 as, in much the longest section, Dara faces his accusers in court and conducts his own spirited defence of his position even though the odds are stacked against him. It is here that Zubin Varla comes into his own showing the inner strength and fortitude of the character which he is playing and how, had he prevailed the history of the Indian subcontinent might have turned out rather differently. The characterisation of Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb is rather more one note and he is in danger at times of becoming a pantomime villain. I felt that this was more in the writing than the performance though, as neither he nor the prosecutor Talib (!!) played by Prasanna Puwanarajah are given the same sense of moral authority to justify their beliefs. A more even handed examination of the issues might have made for a stronger play all round. The second half does not really have anywhere much to go other than for the repercussions of the court decision to be played out and as Aurangzeb’s stranglehold on his country develops. There is something rather Shakespearean about this especially when the various ghosts of his victims appear in an idea heavily borrowed from Richard III. The most interesting part of Act 2 is the aforementioned interpolated scene where Itbar (a fiery Joplin Sibtain) bitterly reject the parents who have come to sponge off him.
The sense of another world both historically and geographically is luminously summoned up in Katrina Lindsay’s exotic set and excellent use is made of delicate tracery screens to suggest the passing of time or the changing of location; her costumes based on art of the period are sumptuously realised. In fact, the whole creative team are to be congratulated on a job very well done. Nadia Fall co-ordinates all this with a skilful eye and her able direction neatly contrasts the public and the personal, foregrounding whatever is most important. It is good to see the National crossing the boundaries imposed by the Western tradition in their search for something new and relevant to today’s audiences and it is even more encouraging to see them making it accessible through their home streaming service which contains other world delights it will be a pleasure to discover.
Production photos by Ellie Kurtz
Dara is available via National Theatre At Home – click here
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