THEATRE REVIEW: Dara, National Theatre

playing until 4 April

Dara - NTOriginally performed in Pakistan, and newly-adapted for this National Theatre production, Dara is an ambitious drama telling the story of two sons battling over the Emperor’s throne in Mughal India in the 17th century. It’s a bit like sitting down to a Shakespearean history, but then being plunged into an Indian and Muslim culture that comprises sumptuous luxury, torn loyalties and fierce religious debate.

While Dara (Zubin Varla) is inspired by poetry, religious tolerance and deep spirituality, his brother Aurangzeb seeks strict religious order and absolute power. Interlinked with flashbacks from the brothers’ past, we witness the saga unfolding from childhood differences to bloody and fatal conflict. This comes to a head in the central scene, which comprises an extended court scene as Dara is put on trial for apostasy. It is here that Tanya Ronder’s dialogue (adapted from Shahid Nadeem’s play) is perhaps the most intriguing, as discussions of religion, extremism and tolerance are both fascinating in general, and unavoidably, almost brutally topical, particularly in the context of Islam.

Varla puts in a powerful, dignified and quietly passionate performance as Dara. He is supported by a strong cast overall, including Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb, Anneika Rose as their fiery younger sister Roshanara, and Vincent Ebrahim as the frail and desperate Emperor Shah Jahan. The backstory of Aurangzeb and Hira tugs at the heartstrings and of course goes some way to explaining his attitude later in life; yet I would have liked to see more of his emotional and political mindset unpacked, to gain a fuller and more intricate understanding of his opposition to Dara’s tolerant and multi-faith approach. As Itbar, Chook Sibtain plays with moral ambiguity throughout, but his encounter with his parents in the play’s late stages is a stand-out scene – on this epic political and historical scale, with events that had huge implications, it is the deep pain of familial conflict that cuts the deepest.

Katrina Lindsay’s design incorporates layers of moving screens, which effectively slide us from one scene into another, and between timescales. These chronological jumps are infused with a different ambience and lighting to avoid confusion, but this is only partly successful – at times it is a little hard to keep track. However, the motif of the dancing girl is striking and scatters Hira’s tragedy poignantly throughout the show, even before you know its significance.

There’s a risk that, in spite of the visual feast, this could become a little dry; however, with elements comparable to Greek tragedies or Shakespearean histories, Dara is successful in proving that this story of two brothers and their place in history deserves to be more widely known. It is an interesting piece that stirs the mind rather the soul, making you think rather than transporting you to emotional heights and depths. Yet it is worth seeing for a compelling evening’s theatre, if not the most instantly memorable of the National’s productions.

Click here for more information and booking details.

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