Posts Tagged ‘Sargon Yelda’

Preview review – Dara – National Theater

January 25, 2015

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.)


Review – Stovepipe – National Theater/Bush Theater at West 12, Shepherds Bush

March 23, 2009

Today I went up to Shepherds Bush to see Stovepipe, a new play by Adam Brace that the National is mounting in conjunction with the Bush Theater at … er, a shopping mall in Shepherd’s Bush.

Now, this was weird. I mean, I knew it was in a mall, but still – West 12 is one of those sad little run-down malls that seems to have seen its heyday eclipsed (by Westfields, I think) and has lots of empty storefronts and fairly low-rent retailers in the space that remains. On the other hand – what better place to do a show? And for us sad saps, there was a nice sign right on the front telling us where to go – straight back to the Morrisons and then to the right, where a little storefront had a sort of bar/coffee shop installed so that show go-ers didn’t just have to mill about in the mall’s halls waiting for something to happen. Sadly, I wasn’t able to laze around in the environment, as I needed to go to the ladies, and people were being led out the doors as I came out (at about 3 minutes ’til showtime) to a back alley exit from the mall to the actual place where the performance would happen. (Be warned: get there at least 5 minutes before showtime or risk being left behind!)

Then we went down the stairs into some sort of storage slash utility system underneath West 12. It was a world of heavy cement bricks, flat walls, Arabic graffiti … we were sliding into the world of Stovepipe. We walked into a sleazy looking conference center, where we were given passes marking us as contractors, and were welcomed into a world of … displays of military equipment and TVs showing videos of the many remarkable accomplishments that had taken place since the invasion. “Thousands of new homes built!” (And me personally responsible for them being destroyed in the first place.) Later talks of how loyalty could be bought with food and a steady electricity supply rang with a certain degree of irony. We were then led into a side hall, where we were sat down and given a speech from “a great war hero and man of business,” which is suddenly interrupted by … an emergency … light overhead … we need to evacuate.

WOW. What was actually amazing me about this show was that it was running enough on the edge that I was actually feeling a little nervous as I went through the space and kind of unsure about what was going to happen to us. Sometimes we were watching a clear “scene,” in which we were pretending to watch guys in an armored vehicle driving, but with the guns pointing everywhere I found myself distinctly uncomfortable and unclear about how well the audience/performer line was being drawn. Most of the scenes had a feeling like we were just dropping in, watching Alan (Shaun Dooley) hanging out with his friends Eddy (Niall MacGregor) and Grif (Christian Bradley – as well as playing the soldier of war we saw earlier), laughing about how weird their job is, tossing back drinks and fooling around with each other, just being guys. The production was both sympathetic and, I think, realistic about the situation of these “mercenaries” – yeah, sure, they are soldiers for hire, but they’re also guys who maybe don’t have a lot of other marketable skills and may not be nearly as capable of walking away as we imagine they are.

I particularly liked the scenes where we were effectively part of the action. This would not be when Alan was arguing with his boss’s wife, Carolyn (the extremely talented, quick-change-artist extraordinaire Eleanor Matsuura) in their offices, but rather when he and his friends, say, went into a darkened building where we had been forced to huddle like refugees while they searched for explosives or other contraband. The experience was sharp and the fact of where we were and what we were doing fell away from me. I distinctly no longer felt like I was watching a show; I was in it, in a way Masque of the Red Death had not managed to accomplish. Yeah, sure, I recognized that the chick with the high cheekbones was the same in each scene, but clattering around in cheap high heels, she was so clearly the Russian prostitute, and there was no mistaking her with the (perfectly accented) American journalist that never seemed to have any real purpose in the plot. And Sargon Yelda – I can’t believe he actually had more than one role, as he disappeared as an obnoxious American and then seemed to only have shown up for the very first time as the Iraqi translator hiding in Jordan. I was really quite impressed with the acting talent on display.

Overall, I consider this to have been a very high value return on my twenty quid, despite the fact that I got blisters from all the walking around I did in my new shoes. If you like this kind of stuff – or if you like plays about modern society, politics or war (would really like to know how this compares to Black Watch!) – this would be a good show for you to see.

(This review is for a show that took place on Sunday, March 23rd. Stovepipe continues through April 26th, 2009.)