After my rant about the lack of cultural diversity in London theater programming, I was thrilled to pieces to see that the National Theater had picked up a play from Pakistan to present in London. Dara. To me, a play about two princes of Mughal India vying for power seemed like the perfect thing to lure in a broader slice of the British public than those I normally see at the National; and for me, as a regular theater goer, I was excited about seeing a play about royal power politics played on an entirely different stage from The James Plays and the endless stream of Henries.
But what I didn’t expect was to go see a play that was absolutely in the blazing heart of everything politically aware people are arguing about today. In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, Dara is a must-see show, presenting a 17th century tale of two competing visions of Islam that mirrors almost exactly the questions we are dealing with today. Is the world to be one in which strict interpretation of scriptures rule? This is the vision Prince Aurangzeb (Sargon Yelda) has, that as the new Emperor, he shall eliminate the softness of his father’s rule. It’s impossible to watch the lecherous, drunken Emperor Shah Jahan (Vincent Ebrahim) stumbling around without feeling like there’s really a need for a change, but is Aurangzeb what India needs? Dara is the crown prince, and, as played by Zubin Varla, he is full of charisma; an intellectual and born leader whose deep examination of religion (brought out during the course of the play) has given him the knowledge to connect with and respect all of his subjects.
But somewhere along the line, Dara and Aurangzeb have managed to come into conflict with each other, and the resolution of their family issues forms the warp and weft of this play. I have no idea if it has any basis in actual fact, but as family relationships go, it is believable and suitably dramatic. And for me, I raced to the end having no idea how the conflict would resolve itself. This was probably not the case for many other people in the audience, but I was on the edge of my seat, absolutely hanging on every word of the big trial scene, loving the chance to hear how one scholar chose to see Islam and the search for God presented on stage to a packed house of modern people. It was almost like listening to one of Aristotle’s old dialogues read out loud; the arguments went across the centuries, and the brilliant mind who created it still shone brightly through his words.
As a work of theater, there were some shortcomings. In particular, I found the character of Aurangzeb a bit shrill and lacking in depth, as if the author himself struggled to find the humanity within him. Jahanara, eldest sister of the family (Nathalie Armin) seemed too soft, too unaware of her abilities; in this case, I think some fault lie with the actress as well. And the entire plot line of Aurangzeb and his mistress Hira Bai (Anjana Vasan) seemed to be an unnecessary distraction, one of many that kept us away from the more fascinating relationship between the temperamental father and his two sons.
At the end, though, the combined effect of the powerful story, Zubin Varla’s entrancing performance, and the sense of utter relevance of this story to what we are experiencing today won me over. I can only wonder what Shahid Nadeem has been living through in his own country to have written this in 2010; I can only hope that those who see it are won over by Dara’s vision of an inclusive world. I, for one, left the theater feeling truly inspired, for seeing a great piece of theater and an inspiring vision of what the future might be if we could only have the wisdom to learn from the past. The James Plays spoke to a Britain united by its focus on the future of Scotland: but Dara speaks to everyone looking for a way to make our connected worlds, east and west, north and south live together in respect and harmony. And hurray for the National Theater for doing their bit both to promote this play, more widely serve the UK audience, and help in their own way to make Dara’s vision a reality.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, January 23, 2015. It runs through April 4th.)