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Shahid Nadeem's play, the first opening in 2015 at the National Theatre, tells of Mughal India in 1659, where two princes battle for succession.
Where do we find stories about Pakistan… that also affect us in Britain? That’s a question outgoing NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner has asked, and this is the epic and often highly affecting response.
‘Dara’ is a story that both Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians would have enjoyed tackling – a tale of strife between the two seventeenth century Mughal princes Dara and Aurangzeb, filled with ambition, betrayal, and at least one gorily severed head. Originally written in 2009 by Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, it’s been adapted by Tanya Ronder, and addresses vital questions both about Islam’s historic role and its place in the modern world.
On Katrina Lindsay’s beautiful set – which divides the stage into three and echoes Mughal architecture with crenellated arches and intricate metal screens that work like veils – we first see Zubin Varla’s Dara begging an Afghan chieftain for sanctuary. In this establishing scene we learn all we need to know about Dara’s defiant spirit, the affection he has inspired in others, and the ravages his murderous brother Aurangzeb has wrought across the Mughal empire. The philosophical divide in Dara is between two interpretations of Islam – Prince Dara’s Sufi-influenced, tolerant, humane response and Prince Aurangzeb’s ascetic, vengeful interpretation, easily identifiable with today’s fundamendalist mentality. Aurangzeb proves the strategic victor – and we are gently invited to ask how that event might have impacted on the world order today.
This is a complicated story, and the play works best when it dares to revel in the complexity of the arguments it is putting forward. The best scene by far – and one it’s easy to imagine will be studied in schools – is when Dara is brought before the Sharia court in Delhi, and is forced to prove that he is a true Muslim. Varla has a compelling and intelligent stage presence that brings both lyricism and rigour to his arguments with the repressive prosecutor. ‘I am a Muslim who recognizes that other religions have value,’ he says, a declaration eagerly received by audiences whose news consumption is dominated by Muslims who think precisely the reverse.
There are some flaws. It occasionally becomes irritating that the background to Aurangzeb’s vengeful interpretation of Islam plays purely like the stuff of a misery memoir. Alarmed by the antics of his alcoholic grandfather, and bullied by his father, a clear emotional line is traced between the abused child and the tyrannical jihadist. Yet the progression cannot have been so simple, and allowing his character to be more complex would have given ‘Dara’ more dynamism. That cavil aside, it is a magnificently ambitious project, beautifully acted, and visually sumptuous, that throws both light and darkness on a crucial moment in world history.