The name Dara seems to me closer to Dublin than Delhi, but the show that opened at the Lyttleton this week marks one of the National’s first engagements with Islam. The script follows a classic formula: the beloved eldest son, Dara, the foolish father whose favouritism provokes the vengeance of Aurangzeb, a son who, despite his legitimacy, is a right bastard.
We begin at the gates of a castle. Dara calls to the lord to be let in; this sets a declamatory tone that is maintained far too long. Many instances could be improved by a quiet moment or a gentler touch. It isn’t until the second half that we are given a break from the raspy half shouts of the cast. The scenes where our young bastard son secretly frolick with his Hindu lover offer some of the most touching moments. Aside from our Cockney geezer eunuch, the cast all have posh – and off-putting – English accents. Despite these were the very few things I didn’t like.
The play is explicitly philosophical. Our protagonist’s jealous brother seizes the throne through treachery and trickery and puts him on trial. Now we are into Greek tragedy territory as the two sides battle it out. It reminds me of my favourite scene from Medea, sorely missed from the National’s production: Jason and Medea’s quarrel, mediated by a chorus in this case composed of the king’s biased attendees of the royal court.
Dara, Zubin Varla, has benefitted from the love of a devoted father and developed to become a reluctant leader and a dutiful scholar. His self-assurance has allowed him to approach his own religion with an open mind. His thoughts are beautifully simple and his words at once poetic and clear, the philosophical voice of the liberal Muslim, as relevant now as then, unafraid of engaging with other religions and speaking about them on an equal footing. A forgiving realist who understands his reality is not necessarily another’s and that all spiritual struggle is a universal pursuit of the same enlightenment: “I am a Muslim who recognises that other religions have value”.
Aurangzeb, Sargon Yelda, is as intelligent as his brother. He has proved his nous already by his outwitting of Dara and his father. However, separated from the affections of his father, he is power hungry and resistant to his brother’s statements, despite obviously understanding them. The play’s argument is a little black and white. Nadeem and Fall, writer and director, seem to be admonishing apparently confused, fundamentalist Muslims for appropriating the Qu’ran for their own ends. That’s precisely what they are doing, of course, but the show trial is a crude inverted mirror of the playwright’s contrasting sympathies.
Ironically, the lessons against hubris and ignorance reminded me of the Bacchae. When Dara’s father mistakes the head of his son for his favourite fruit, a watermelon, echoes the scene where the king of Thebes’ head is brought back by his mother who, in her madness, believes it to be the head of a lion and proudly parades it through the city. The Dionysian cocktail of booze and divinely-sent insanity is replaced by the man-made madness of religion, but foolhardy ignorance and arrogance clouding the judgment of the power hungry is a shared theme. The sanctimonious lesson intrigues. There is more than enough to get your teeth into and carefully crafted moments make up for the occasional brutish chunks. 3/5
Review written by Harry Davies.
Dara is currently showing at the Lyttleton, National Theatre until April 4th 2015. For more information on the production, visit here…