Thursday, 5 February 2015

Theatre review: Dara

Based on the story of the 17th century Indian princes whose mother's death inspired the building of the Taj Mahal, Shahid Nadeem’s Dara is adapted by Tanya Ronder and directed by Nadia Fall for the National. Dara (Zubin Varla) is the oldest brother and Crown Prince, expected to succeed the Emperor of Hindustan. But after dispensing with youngest brother Murad (Rudi Dharmalingam,) the middle brother Aurangzeb (Sargon Yelda) mounts a coup, imprisoning Dara and their father, and installing himself as Emperor. Beloved of the people, Dara will always be a threat, but having him killed off will only make him a martyr. The solution comes in Dara's books of poetry and religious philosophy, in which the devout Muslim examines the teachings of other faiths. If Aurangzeb can have him condemned as an apostate to Islam, his blood won't seem to be on his hands.

From the opening scenes on Katrina Lindsay's imposing set of marble staircases and sliding screens, it's clear that the production is epic in scope. But for all the sound and fury, the heart is in the central trial scene.

In the play's single longest scene Dara, fully aware this is a show-trial he won't survive, faces off against a vicious prosecutor (Prasanna Puwanarajah.) It's a powerful and moving clash between the mindset that uses a religious text to justify imposing their will on others, and that which sees it as a guide to peace and inclusion; and it topically puts centre-stage a Muslim who abhors the violence done in his religion's name.

Dara might have a powerful message and some scenes of high drama, but it somehow manages to balance this with an utterly bonkers narrative and visual style. The fast-paced action is sometimes interrupted, at seemingly arbitrary points, for lengthy flashbacks: This is how we find out that Aurangzeb's behaviour stems from his teenage years, when on the advice of a fakir he'd just met, his father (Vincent Ebrahim) started treating him as the black sheep who would betray the whole family, then was surprised when it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy (also known as "Edmund Pevensie syndrome.") He also had his world-view poisoned after his relationship with a Hindu girl (Anjana Vasan) who died of Period Drama Cough.

Scene changes are accompanied by whirling dervishes, some of them looking a bit queasy by the end. The royal family are tended by the eunuch Itbar (Chook Sibtain,) a hulking cockney in a nice frock and pearls. One scene basically consists of Aurangzeb ordering "BRING ME MY ASTROLOGER!... actually on second thoughts TAKE AWAY MY ASTROLOGER!" This sense of the camp and ridiculous somehow manages to coexist with the more serious side without either being diminished, making Dara an easy show to enjoy, and a memorable one.

Dara by Shahid Nadeem in a version by Tanya Ronder is booking in repertory until the 4th of April at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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