The year is 1659, the setting Mughal India. The imperial court is a place of opulence and excess music, drugs, eunuchs and harems. Two brothers, whose mother’s death inspired the Taj Mahal, are heirs to this Muslim empire. Now they are locked in a ferocious fight for succession. Dara, the crown prince, has the love of the people and of his emperor father, but younger brother Aurangzeb holds a different vision for India’s future. Islam inspires poetry in Dara puritanical rigour in Aurangzeb. Can Jahanard, their beloved sister, assuage Aurangzeb’s resolve to seize the Peacock Throne and purge the empire?
This drama which has been adapted by Tanya Ronder from an original work by Shahid Nadeem and first performed by the Ajoka Theatre, Pakistan, certainly has a fascinating subject – a domestic battle with far-reaching consequences for Hindustan then and for our world now. But the treatment of the story is flawed – the succession of short, bitty scenes at the start and moves back and forth in time and place initially create a sense of confusion. It would have been better to offer a straightforward linear narrative so that we could navigate more easily through these complex events.
Nevertheless Nadia Fall’s production is imaginatively staged, with the sliding lattice screens of Katrina Lindsay’s designs and the soft hues id Neil Austin’s lighting proving richly atmospheric. There are also striking moments of stage poetry and a protracted but tense courtroom scene which provides the core of the drama. It is here that the play cuts to the most critical and insoluble dilemma of our times: faith’s absolutism against liberalism’s tolerance.
Zubin Varla captures perfectly the anguished idealism of Dara the Sufi poet and scholar and a model of religious enlightenment, while Sargon Yelda is equally fine as his power-hungry puritanical rival Aurangzeb, a strict adherent of Islam. Good support is provided by Anjana Vasan as Dara’s Hindu lover and Chook Sibtain as the vengeful imperial eunuch who savagely rejects the parents who sold him into slavery.
A bold choice, then, by the National but a work whose ambition is more impressive than its achievement.
Plays until 4h April 2015
Box office: 020 7452 3000
Last modified: June 9, 2021