Ambition has long been a trait of productions at the National Theatre on London’s Southbank.
In recent months the National has been ramping up the ambition quotient with two epic productions inspired by topics that are uniquely sub-continental – first with ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ and now, ‘Dara’.
‘Dara’ is a dramatization of the life of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal, and the conflict between his two sons.
The play focuses on the insecurity of Shah Jahan and the power struggle between his sons, the religious conformist Aurangzeb and the reformist Dara.
Shah Jahan’s northern Indian empire was defined by its opulence, decadence and grandeur as well as the political intrigues, greed and religious dogma.
Directed by Nadia Fall from an Tanya Ronder adaptation of a play by Pakistani journalist and playwright Shahid Nadeem, ‘Dara’ replicates all of those characteristics to wonderful effect among the austere grey concrete blocks of the Southbank.
The interplay of emotions between the father and sons as well as elder sister Jahanara will keep you hanging on to the edge of your seat, savouring every moment, every dialogue and every emotion.
The sets are a sight to behold.
From the marble-effect flooring to the intricate details on the sliding doors, the attention to detail is magnificent and transports you centuries into the past.
The performances are outstanding, in particular Zubin Varla and Sargon Yelda who play Dara and Aurangzed respectively. Dara’s anguished screams seem to reach out and tug at your heart.
The sub plot of the near-fanatical Aurangzeb and his mistress Hira Bai helps brings out the more humane side of Aurangzeb, a man widely considered a murderous tyrant.
Aurangzeb would do anything for her, even indulge in the occasional tipple despite his religious conservatism. She brought out his softer side, one which many thought he didn’t possess.
‘Dara’ is resplendent in powerful scenes but one in particular stands out for me. It takes place inside a Sharia Court where Dara is being tried for the ‘crime’ of polytheism.
The raging debate between the opposition lawyer and Dara really brings to light not only what it must have been like to be a reformer in a court such as that of Shah Jahan but also to be human.
The play poses questions that are relevant in today’s world and the role of hardliners in the rise of religious extremism – not least in how Dara was willing to explore the relevance and goodness inherent in all religions.
Nadia Fall’s direction is excellent, never allowing the visual spectacle to distract from her primary role of providing clarity to a complex historical affair that has resonance in the present day.
Dara is not without flaws.
Jahanara is portrayed by the servants and workers in the palace as a powerful and strong woman capable of bringing peace between her two warring brothers and yet here, she is presented as someone who is meek and submissive.
Her character is too one-dimensional – I would have wanted to see more shades to her character. In a bid to keep the plot alive, Fall also resorts to frequent flashbacks that can be a bit disorienting.
These are small quibbles. Perfection, after all, is an utopia.
Overall, ‘Dara’ is a powerful, moving and illuminating work and well worth the trek in the sleet to the Southbank.
‘Dara’ is at the National Theatre until 4 April.