“I am Muslim, but my humanness is shared with anyone and everyone. If we choose to love one special person, does it mean that they are the only person worth loving? ‘To you, your religion, to me, mine’. ‘There is no obligation in religion’ – straight from the Quran. We cannot force our religion upon others.”
For all the gnashing of teeth about how ‘national’ Rufus Norris’ newly announced debut season as AD at the NT is or isn’t, there’s actually something much more significant happening right now as part of Nicholas Hytner’s finale. The press attention may be on Tom Stoppard’s return to the stage but over in the Lyttelton, the first South Asian play to run at this South Bank venue is doing that most idealised of theatrical practices – reaching out and engaging with new audiences.
I saw a late preview of Shahid Nadeem’s Dara and I was blown away at how mixed a crowd I was taking my seat with – there’s undoubtedly a more sophisticated debate to be had about people wanting to see stories they can directly connect with rather than being more adventurous but still, it felt like a significant enough matter that I wanted to make mention of. And as critics will be seeing the show with a more than likely traditional press night audience, it isn’t something they’ll necessarily pick up on.
Dara was originally performed by Ajoka Theatre from Pakistan but comes to the NT in a new version by Tanya Ronder and directed by Nadia Fall, who presents its historical sweep with an exhilarating and epic production. Ostensibly, it’s a history play, set in seventeenth century Mughal India where brothers Dara and Aurangzeb are feuding over the right for succession to this Muslim empire as their father Shah Jahan – him who commissioned the Taj Mahal out of grief for their mother – stands idly by.
But it is so much more besides – Dara believes in the compassionate inter-faith co-existence of Sufism whereas Aurangzeb swears by the strictness of Sharia law and a rigid interpretation of the Koran – and so we get to see how moderation and radicalism do battle in society, the consequences of inaction, how tolerance becomes a victim to tyranny. The modern parallels could not be more urgently felt and yet there’s still so much that is new and unfamiliar (assuming you’re not a religious scholar) and essential to get to grips with in the fully realised portrayal of a kind of Islam (Sufism) that is given little air time in today’s (Western) world.
Fall wraps the play in a gorgeously opulent production that pulls the senses in all directions whilst also stretching the mind. Katrina Lindsay’s lush and expressionistic design is hugely elegant but also highly practical – wide marble stairs form both court and courtroom, and sliding panels of intricate latticework provide the corners in which intrigue is plotted. Niraj Chag’s music is played and sung live by a Qawwali band (Nawazish Khan, Kaviraj Singh Dhadyalla and Vikaash Sankadecha) which sets the mood perfectly, along with Neil Austin’s dramatic lighting choices.
And in a cast which shares many members with Behind the Beautiful Forevers, there’s exquisite work from Zubin Varla as the visionary Dara and Sargon Yelda as the immovable Aurangzeb, their fierce battle of words a centrepiece to the show in a lengthy Act 1 finale. Nathalie Armin and Anneika Rose both stand out as sisters to the warring princes who try to intervene and there’s vivid work too from Chook Sibtain and Scott Karim as a eunuch and a seer respectively.
The high number of short scenes and the scope of the story means that the company have to multi-role a lot – something Fall delineates very well – but the fragmented timeline of the play feels a little superfluous, I’m not 100% sure what it brings to the table. But as the second act winds its way through the tragedy of religious extremism and the corrosive effect of absolute power with a stunning theatricality (the tableaux of the final scenes are just beautiful), it is striking to note how adroitly timed this powerful piece of drama is, and pleasing to recognise a National Theatre acknowledging the diversity of the nation it serves.