Theatre review: Dora at the National Theatre

This epic Indian fable is worth seeing for Zubin Varla’s tour de force performance alone, says Caroline David

‘There should be no coercion in worship’ states the visionary Dara in Tanya Ronder’s worthy adaptation of Shahid Nadeem’s play, originally performed by Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan.

Dara draws us into the heady world of mid 17th century India where we confront the issue of militant Islam, viewed through the prism of one family: Shah Jahan [Vincent Ebrahim] and his sons Dara [Zubin Varla] and Aurangzeb [Sargon Yelda], who vie to succeed the Peacock Throne.

Nadia Fall’s production is certainly atmospheric. The play opens on a lavish set, designed by Katrina Lindsay. The Jahan family floats around their palace (a design that draws inspiration from the Taj Mahal – one of Jahan’s creations) in bejeweled robes, while servant girls glide behind multiple partitions, smoke billows, and Sufis dance near naked.

Ronder’s adaptation takes pains to play its opening scenes in an epic style in keeping with traditional Asian storytelling with broad brush-stroke characterizations. But the initial historical exposition is heavily handled and too much detail becomes an effort to follow, not much helped by fleeting, hazy projections of dates and locations. It’s when Ronda shifts into the more mundane territory of family conflicts that the play springs to life: the father’s irrational favouritism and the brothers’ rivalry are keenly played.

There are some lovely fables that are narrated but the real show piece is Dara’s trial. Popular, tolerant Dara, who propagates Sufi Islam and an appreciation of other religions and poetry, is captured by the rigorous Arangzeb and put on trial for apostasy. In a Sharia court, Dara faces his Mullah adversaries with impassioned dignity and Varla’s performance is a tour de force. While the second half of the play fails to take the debate much further, this urgent scene is worth the ticket price alone.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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