Theatre review: Dara

Think you know about the Mughals? This play will blow your mind...

Posted: 10.02.15

It is 1644 in Hindustan. This is the Golden Age of the most famous non-European empire where Hindus and Muslims live together. Emperor Shah Jahan rules the vast Indian subcontinent from his throne in Agra. His beloved Mumtaz is expecting their fourteenth child. A mysterious fakir (fortune teller) visits the palace and reveals to the Emperor which of his young sons, Prince Dara or Prince Aurangzeb will disown him.

Time speeds up and we are in 1659. The finest example of Mughal architecture The Taj Mahal is being built as a memory to the emperor’s late wife. Both princes, now men rival for succession as the next emperor but each with very different visions for South Asia. Aurangzeb is absolute in his Islamic beliefs and his cutthroat ambition makes him the eventual heir to the Mughal throne. Dara, a practicing Sufi, progressive in his spiritual beliefs identifies with all faiths, striving for a balance and coexistence with all religions across the empire from Christianity to the new emerging religion of the Sikhs.

Written by Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, Dara was originally performed for the stage in Pakistan and India where it was well received. Nadeem felt the story of Aurangzeb was well known and wanted to bring he attention on Dara, the other brother who could have been emperor of the Mughals. In this UK adaptation, Tanya Ronder captures this interpretation and brings with it the essence and high relevance of the play to contemporary British audiences.

The play has a definite Shakespearean feel. It is historical drama, echoing King Lear. Violence, incest and fratricide associated with the stories of the Ancient Roman Emperors, we learn was also very much part of Mughal history as well as the more familiar stories of polygamous marriage, keeping a harem and the untold story of palace eunuchs, castrated in order to safeguard the harem. 

The trial scene is the focal point of the production. Dara’s identification with multiple faiths leads him to be tried for apostasy by the Sharia court. The scene is almost carried out in real time conveying the complexity of any religious questioning. Undoubtedly, audiences will reflect upon the main issue of religion and positioning the play as being even more relevant than it was during the era.

The costumes are magnificent. The cast look as if they have stepped out of the fine miniature paintings of the Mughal era. The grandeur of the period is recreated by the familiar shapes of Mughal architecture; the performers are juxtaposed against the large open spaces of the massive halls to convey the vast space of Mughal architecture. A large window in the backdrop emphasises the size of their buildings. Distinct arches, exemplifying their architectural style canopy the stage whilst the black filigree like screen acts as a veil.

The casting of a variety of Asian actors reflects the diversity of the Mughal Empire.Emperor Shah Jahan is played by Vincent Ibrahim (Behind the Beautiful Forevers and The Kumars at No.42). Zubin Varla (Holby City, Silent Witness, Spooks) plays the lead Dara with such passion and precision, it is as though he was born to play the role, and Sargon Yelda is his brother Aurangzeb. 

Audiences will time travel back to this magnificent era. Yet, it is a play which is more than an education into the history and legacy of the Mughal Empire. It is very much about how the past has shaped the present and what India was like before Empire. The poignancy is towards the closing moments which captures Aurangzeb final moments of his reign and the realisation that the end of this vast and wealthy empire is about to change. It is a courageous production especially at a time when Islam is the currently the most profiled religion in the world. This is a play about Muslim culture and identity that also puts religion, faith and belief in the forefront of everyone's mind whether you are religious or not. Most noticeably though it is a story that is 350 years old which in its entirety, is just as relevant today. 

by Lubjana Matin-Scammell
images: Elile Kurttz
Dara is showing at The National Theatre, Lyttleton Theatre until April 4 2015.
Adapted by Tanya Ronder Play by Shahid Nadeem 
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