The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Winter-Spring 2015
This adaptation by Tanya Ronder of a play by contemporary Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem illuminates what is for most a little-known piece of Indian and Islamic history and contains one very powerful scene that is engrossing both emotionally and intellectually. But missteps and missed opportunities in both play construction and stagecraft keep it from being more than intermittently successful.
In the Seventeenth Century, while Mughal emperor Shah Jahan mourns his wife and builds the Taj Mahal in her memory, his sons wage bloody wars over the succession.
The last two standing are the Crown Prince Dara and the younger Aurangzeb, who ultimately triumphs, largely through guile and deception. Aurangzeb takes the throne, relegates his father to house arrest and captures Dara, but to keep the Prince from becoming a martyr trumps up charges of heresy against him.
The trial in an Islamic court is the high point and emotional climax of the play as Dara, before his foregone conviction, gets to argue the case for an enlightened and open Islam.
It is also the end of Act One, and one of the play's basic problems is that there isn't a whole lot left to happen after the interval, leaving a very strong sense of anticlimax and dissipating energy through the last hour.
Even before that there were problems in the writing. For most of the audience there is a very steep learning curve about just who's who and what's going on in the opening scenes, and Tanya Ronder doesn't help by jumping around in place and time and inserting flashbacks.
So, for example, we meet new actors playing the younger versions of some characters before we've fully sorted out the actors playing their older selves, while other actors have to keep switching clothes and beards as they move backward and forward in time.
Projected titles at the beginning of each scene guide us through the geographical and chronological jumps, but they're not always visible – didn't anyone go out front during technical rehearsals to check this? – while scene-changing music frequently drowns out dialogue, another very basic technical foul-up.
The flashbacks are designed largely to give a sense of how the adult Aurangzeb and Dara's characters were formed, Aurangzeb's focussing on his teenage resentment at father's preference for his elder bother, Dara's on his early curiosity about other religions and desire to understand his own.
But sibling envy is too easy and clichéd a bit of psychoanalysis to be satisfying, and so actor Sargon Yelda is never really able to bring Aurangzeb alive, while the key insight into Dara's early spiritual quest comes an hour after the courtroom scene and the character's departure from the play.
Meanwhile the play's inconsistent slips into archaic language and purple prose suggest an author trying unsuccessfully to inject an exotic flavour, while an over-reliance by director Nadia Fall and designer Katrina Lindsay on swirling fabric panels, dancing girls and that intrusive music gives the impression they were afraid we would forget the play is set in India if not constantly reminded.
Which leaves that one courtroom scene, which is a good one.
Up to then Zubin Varla's performance as Dara has been constrained by the need for constant costume and wig changes, but he is finally allowed a large chunk of time to present a strong and attractive character, while also making the argument that interest in and respect for other religions does not imply apostasy from your own.
You can see why this would be the core and raison d'etre for a play by a twenty-first century Pakistani writer, and even a Western audience can be caught up and engrossed by the eloquent presentation of the issue.
The scene, and Varla's performance in it are not quite enough to be worth the price of admission on their own, but they give some sense of how excellent the play and production might have been had they come closer to that level throughout.
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