Thursday, January 29, 2015

DARA, National Theatre

Following on from David Hare's BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS in the Olivier auditorium, we now have another play set in India at the National Theatre only this time in the Lyttelton.  Another difference is that while FOREVERS is set in present-day Mumbai, DARA is set in the 17th Century, but telling a true story that haunts India to this day.

Tanya Ronder has adapted the Indian writer Shahid Nadeem's 2010 play which tells the true story of two Moghul princes who fought each other to claim the Peacock Throne but whose personal enmity also was built on their different Islamic beliefs.

Emperor Shah Jahan is remembered as the man who built the Taj Mahal to the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz but 25 years later his ailing health was the trigger for his sons to start battling to be his successor.  His eldest son Dara and his third son Aurangzeb emerged as the strongest contenders and battles raged for the next two years.  After a heavy defeat Dara was betrayed by an ally and was paraded through Delhi by a victorious Aurangzeb.

However it was more than sibling hatred that drove Aurangzeb to defeat his brother.  For Dara was a Sufti Muslim, seeking an inner truth in the religion and open to exploring the comparative ideas of other beliefs as well as writing poetry and meditations which are still in print today.  Aurangzeb however was a fervent Islamic fundamentalist.  Dara was put on trial for apostasy, found guilty and was summarily executed leaving Aurangzeb free to impose his hardline Islamic views on the country.  Well, Constant Reader, I am guessing you can see why this play is being staged now?

I had wondered whether I would be engaged by the play but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I will admit that a lot of my enjoyment came from Nadia Fall's handsome production: Katrina Lindsay's evocative marble palace of arches, steps and sliding metal screens conjured up that far-off world of power and opulence while the always excellent Neil Austin's lighting created striking images reminiscent of panoramic 19th Century paintings of mysterious Asian scenes.

There is also much to admire in Niraj Chag's score as played by 3 onstage musicians who provide a constantly involving soundscape to the action.

However despite the internecine plotting of Shah Jahan's fractious family - which also involves his sensible and loving daughter Jahanara who sides with Dara and the vindictive daughter Roshanara who allays herself to Aurangzeb - sadly I never really felt emotionally engaged by any of the characters.  They all go through the whole gamut of emotions and the religious arguments are well presented but none of the characters feel like they are being mined for depth, it all remains on the surface.

Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb is suitably infuriatingly pious and Zubin Varla's righteous Dara are certainly well-played but again I felt that the writer didn't wish to explore them too deeply, it usually boils down to Aurangzeb glowering while Dara suffers nobly.

The structure of the play is also slightly off-kilter mainly because the long and exhaustive trial scene where Dara defends himself against the charge of apostasy comes at the end of Act One when one feels it would have been a better fit in Act Two.  At times during this lengthy scene I was reminded of the similar ones from SAINT JOAN and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS - I wonder if that was the intention?

There were other good performances - Anjana Vasan as Hira Bai the Hindu dancing girl loved by Aurangzeb, Vincent Ebrahim as Shah Jahan, Anneika Rose as the spiteful sister Roshanara, Emilio Doorgasingh as the exasperated judge of Dara's trial, Prasanna Puwanarajah as the Prosecutor and Chook Sibtain as Itbar the court eunuch who hides a savage anger.

I enjoyed the production and it plays at the Lyttelton Theatre until 4th April.

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