REVIEW: Dara, Lyttleton Theatre ✭✭✭

Dara at the National Theatre
Zubin Varla as Dara and Prasanna Puwanarajah as Talib. Photo: Ellie Kurtz

Lyttleton Theatre
1 March 2015
3 Stars

He’s a very tall, very broad, Eunuch. He has been a royal servant ever since he was snatched from his family home when he was 11, fed opium, castrated, left to heal in the sand. He survived, one of only two (out of a batch of twelve) who did. As a Eunuch to the Emperor of the Mughal Empire, he has guarded over the Harem and played a big role in the nursery. He knows the Royal Family intimately; he loves them like his own family.

There are unexpected visitors at the Palace. They want to see the Eunuch. He is bewildered; he has no friends outside the Palace. The Emperor is suspicious, concerned that betrayal might be in the air. The Emperor is the untrusting kind, possibly because he himself is untrustworthy. The visitors enter. An old woman and an old man. The Eunuch’s parents. They have come to beg for money from him.

The Eunuch becomes volcanic with rage, a lifetime of regret, pain and torment erupting from him in a bilious invective. He tells his parents what castration was like for him, how he cannot piss like a man, nor like a woman. He reminds them that the last words he heard from them were “Take him”. He orders them to be taken away and each given 20 lashes.

As scenes of domestic brutality go, this is amongst the most extraordinary seen on a National Theatre stage in many years. The visceral wounding is tangible, hard to endure. Astonishing.

This is Dara, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of Shahid Nadeem’s play, originally staged by Pakistan’s Ajoka Theatre, now playing at the Lyttleton Theatre in a production directed by Nadia Fall, with movement by the talented Liam Steel and fight sequences by Kate Waters. It’s a non-linear History play which looks at a certain chapter in the history of India, focussing on the family of the man who ordered the building of the Taj Mahal.

In the programme, Fall says: “…it’s an opportunity to offer an epic and robust play to South Asian actors. And because the Mughals themselves were from different lands – from as far afield as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Persia – our cast reflect the diversity of that Empire and also of India today. What Tanya’s written is cinematic – wide shots and close ups. The scenes move so fast that there’s no point in setting up a scene with furniture, for example. So what Katrina Lindsay has done in the design is keep it quite spare and Greek-like. The space can be a palace, a war camp, whatever the moment calls for. But we’ve endeavoured to root it in some kind of authenticity in the costume – we have a consultant in India looking at specific Mughal silhouettes. Also the sound design and music are inspired by Sufi music, Sufi poetry and thinking, that being a big theme in the play, and the philosophy of our protagonist, Prince Dara.”

The vision that Fall and Ronder and their team have for Dara is as grand and awesome as the Taj Mahal itself. Lindsay’s wonderful set uses the full length, breadth and height of the Lytleton’s vast space. A series of beautifully patterned screens is employed, moving in constantly changing configurations across and above the stage, giving a truly exotic sense to proceedings. They almost feel like veils, partially coveting action. People dance or move in rhythmic patterns around and behind the screens; Steel’s movement ensuring that the sense of exoticism is heightened and continual.

The costumes are colourful and vividly place the action in a place a long way away. Fall and Steel make sure everything runs at a brisk pace; the colourful kaleidoscope of activity, images and designs is visually intoxicating. It looks magnificent.

In the first Act, Ronder introduces the Royal family (at various times in a hundred year period) and the in-fighting, jealousies and religious doctrines which make each of them who they are. The central narrative concerns the fight for power between Aurangzeb and Dara, both sons of the ruling Shah Jahan. Aurangzeb imprisons his father and eldest sister and hunts down Dara and his son and his other brother, the youngest, Murad.

In essence, Aurangzeb believes Dara is not properly and correctly adhering to the Muslim faith. As a result, Dara is tried for being an apostate and Aurangzeb sets upon a course, ostensibly in the name of the Koran, to use whatever measures he can, including corrupt ones, to achieve the hard line ends he sees as in keeping with the teachings he honours.

The trial of Dara is fascinating. A gifted and agile prosecutor, Talib (can that name be accidental?) methodically, but dishonestly, dissects Dara’s views, uses aspects of evidence to trick him into wrong-footing himself and, like a beast in the night, tears at the edges of Dara until his heart is exposed. In the course of all this, the audience comes to learn a great deal about the Muslim world and the beliefs which underpin it. It is quite eye-opening.

The second Act flits around, somewhat distractingly and not to nearly as good effect as the first Act. Apart from the extraordinary sequences with the Eunuch and an interesting sequence with a wise man, Mian Mir, where Dara learns the value of his kingdom (no more than a glass of water), the second Act meanders a trifle too much. The characters are not so well written or played that it is possible to care greatly for their fates. The promise of the first Act is not built on and the play never reaches its natural, proper crescendo.

The outstanding performances come from Prasanna Puwanarajah (sprightly and quicksilver as Dara’s prosecutor, Talib), Chook Sibtain (a remarkably believable imperial eunuch, Itbar), Nathalie Armin (bewildered and loyal as the eldest sister to Dara and Aurangzeb, full of heart), Ranjit Krishnamma (Mian Mir) and Ronak Patani (Dara’s son, Sipihr). Full marks too to Scott Karim, who pushes the boundaries as the scantily dressed Sufi master, Faqir, whose prophecies set the wheels of hate and revenge in motion.

Zubin Varla and Sargon Yelda have the most substantial roles, Dara and Aurangzeb. Varla is the most successful, especially in the trial scene. But both have difficulty communicating the heart, the human interior of these remarkable men. There is too much anger and shouting; not enough controlled, precise rage.

Perhaps the cinematic treatment of the text noted by Fall holds the key. It is not possible to have close-ups on stage, and this may be why the necessary emphatic connection was not present.

Dara is certainly an epic event and the sumptuous production values underpin that. At its best, it’s provocative and intriguing, full of historical interest. At its worst, it is disappointing, but it is never bad. It is precisely the kind of difficult work the National Theatre should present.

Well worth seeing and thinking about.

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