Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Theatre Review: Dara

Sometimes the idea and the intention behind a play are more impressive than the play itself.

A play that explores the nature of Islam, and of religious tolerance, at the moment feels incredibly important, especially one that’s written by a Pakistani playwright for a radical Pakistani theatre company. That this is all happening in a subsidised theatre is, I think, one of the strongest arguments for the continued relevance and importance of subsidised theatre that you’ll ever get.

It’s a bit disappointing then that the resulting play, for all its good intentions and interesting ideas, feels more like a partisan history lesson than a compelling work of drama.

The play in question is Dara in the NT’s Lyttelton theatre. Written by Shahid Nadeem and adapted for a Western audience by Tanya Ronder, the play tells the story of the war of succession that brought about the end of the Mughal empire in the 17th century. On the one hand is Dara, a Sufi Muslim scholar, open minded and tolerant, his father’s favourite and more suited to a life as a mystical fakir than a ruling prince. On the other is Aurangzeb his younger brother, power hungry, religiously fanatical and carrying some serious daddy issues. Jumping backwards and forwards in time, the play tells the story of the two mens' lives from early childhood to Dara's humiliating military defeat and trial and execution as an apostate at the hands of Aurangzeb. It’s a great story to play with.

The climax of the drama really comes at the end of Act 1 in the (lengthy) apostasy trial scene. At times this scene is fantastic - philosophically interesting, well acted and sharply written. At other times it’s frustrating. The major problem is there’s just not a lot of suspense in this scene. Two things are instantly clear: that Dara is going to lose the trial and be executed and that we are supposed to sympathise with him and absolutely no one else. The prosecutor he spars with is heavy handed and intolerant, the judges are uninterested and/or corrupt, no one other than Dara is given a decent line in the whole scene. Only a blind and deaf person could fail to predict how the scene will end and it’s very difficult to invest in it as a result. Reminder: this is the dramatic heart of the play.

This point is demonstrative of a bigger problem with the play’s characterisation of Dara as 100% good and right 100% of the time. From some reading around the issue (well, reading the programme notes and an article in The Guardian anyway) I gather that this is a revisionist take on the Aurangzeb-Dara story, which traditionally sees Aurangzeb as a hero, and for an audience in the play’s original form and native Pakistan I'm sure this is how it would be perceived. In this adaptation it has the effect of completely deifying Dara and loading the moral dice so heavily in his favour that it’s hard to really invest in, or sometimes even believe, him as a character.

Some of the dialogue doesn't exactly help either. There’s a lot of exposition and a lot of grand proclamations that are a bit like being slapped in the face with ‘An Idiot’s Guide to Religious Tolerance’. As a result, some of the performances have occasional moments of woodenness - Zubin Varla’s Dara suffers particularly as a result (especially in the court scene), which is a shame as he does also have some great moments (especially in the court scene). On the brighter side, performance wise, Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb is very good, helped by better writing and a more complex character no doubt, and there are some great performances from some of the smaller characters, especially Anjana Vasan as Aurangzeb’s (Hindu) lost love and Nathalie Arman as Dara and Auraungzeb’s clever, sensitive sister (both also in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, incidentally, as are many of the Dara cast).

The biggest draw of Dara is the staging, which looks and sounds just beautiful. The set, all Persian architecture and latticed screens, is stunning, simple and effective. The costumes are luscious and vivid. The live music, provided by three musicians from a balcony on the stage, is gorgeous and (to my untrained ear at least) very authentic.
Overall then? Great ideas, fantastic intentions, but not quite realised. It’s good, has great moments, but is generally a bit disappointing. Shame. 

Dara is playing in the Lyttleton until April 4th.

No comments:

Post a Comment