Posts Tagged ‘Vincent Ebrahim’

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 – The Great Game (part 1) – Tricycle theatre

May 8, 2009

Last night J and I went to the Tricycle to see the first third of “The Great Game,” the series of plays on Afghanistan newly commissioned for this event. The plays are set up so that you can see all of them at once, as an all-day event, or split them up into three different evenings, in chronological sets. I’m not really one to sit in a chair watching anything for eight hours, but the promise of new theater (which I like to support) broken into bite-sized chunks (several short plays in each set, meaning the chances of seeing really good stuff was higher and the amount of time you needed to survive a bad one was lower) was irresistable.

The night I went was the earliest set, from about 1860 through the 1920s, with brief modern interludes to provide background. We opened with the Taliban arresting a sign painter, doubtlessly for a variety of crimes (the hugely informative program suggested that listening to music, painting a woman, and not wearing a beard were all likely reasons for his arrest). We then slipped into the best play of the evening: “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” a play about the tragedy of the 16000 British soldiers “and camp followers” (including wives and servants) who died while attempting to escape Kabul for Jalalabad.

The text, about four soldiers waiting for “the other survivors” (there was only one) was enhanced by text from the diary of Lady Sale (performed by Jemma Regrave), who’d been left behind as a hostage. The performances of the four men (Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rick Warden, and Hugh Skinner) nicely captured the madness of war, especially the way they turned on the Afghani (Nabil Elouahabi) who came their way. Imperialism, cultural idiocy, the futility of invasive wars, religious animosity – so much came out in this short time of the problems that basically have not managed to go away. But, more importantly, it captured the eerie feeling of the unbelievable, savage deaths of so many to an extent that it almost felt like a ghost story. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

Of the remaining plays, I felt they suffered from overacting and belaboring their point. Siba Shakib’s “Duologue,” abut the heroine Malalai, who rallied her people to fight against the British, was practically a propaganda piece, and Jemima Rooper didn’t seem to have the least bit of humanity in her portrayal of this person. It is possible that this was really a problem of the script, but hard for me to tell. “Durand’s Line,” about the borders set by Sir Mortimer Durand for the nation of Afghanistan, almost had a comic-book portrayal of Abdur Rahman (Paul Battacharjee), the Amir of Afghanistan from 1880-1901 – he was like Ming the Merciless. The play succeeded in expressing the political and social reality of that time, so I think was somewhat successful, but the acting needed work (again – though actually Michael Cochrane seemed letter-perfect as the pushy civil servant who could easily ignore he was dealing with a man who boiled people alive, and I had no complaints about either Danny Rahim or Rick Warden’s performances) and I felt the character of Abdur was also extremely thin.

After intermission, we return to two eminently forgettable playlets: “Campaign” (by Amit Gupta) which appeared to primarily be concerned with feeding the audience the history of early 20th century Afghanistan via the character of the professor (Paul Bhattacharjee), and “Now is the Time,” which depicted the end of the rule of the man who attempted to modernize Afghanistan in the period the professor had just been describing. “Campaign” seemed like it might have been attempting to insert a little humor with its trope of “the civil servant trying to get some free information from an intellectual,” but I didn’t find it very funny and since I’d just read the story of Amanullah’s failure to bring Attaturk-style reforms to Afghanistan in the program, I also found it boring. It was like one of those horrible moments in SF novels where the author decides they need to explain the details of faster-than-light space flight that they’ve made up for their universe. “Now is the Time” (by Joy Wilkinson) had a real “End of the Tsars” feeling to it, but instead of really focusing on the human drama and the interaction between the characters, it just kept layering on the historical detail as if that were the real purpose of the play. It’s a shame, really, because the question of whether or not Amanullah Khan shot his own father to become king of Afghanistan was really interesting and highly relevant to the question of whether or not he’d just betrayed his father in law (Mahmud Tarzi, played by Vincent Ebrahim) in order to save his own skin. We’re talking serious tension, all of which is eventually let out like air from a balloon as the three leads pile back into their car and head off to Russia with their driver. It really just was not good enough, and Jemima Rooper was also failing to hit it as Soroya Tarzi, daughter of Mahmud and wife of Amanullah. To top it off, I swear their accents all sounded fake.

Overall, though, with such a fast moving pace (six stories between 8 PM and 10:05) and low ticket price (£13), I considered this a good evening – not enough to make me want to sit through the full day showing off all plays in the cycle, but enough to want to come back for part 2 or part 3.

(This review is for a play seen on May 6th, 2008. The Great Game continues through June 16th at The Tricycle. Support new theater – go see this show!)