Dara, National Theatre, 2015

A scene from Dara by Shahid Nadeem

There is no doubting that the tale behind Dara is an powerful one. In 17th century India, the sons of Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal to honour his his wife, are at war to succeed the Mughal empire. One brother, Aurangzeb, subscribes to the word of Islam with a staunch puritanism; the other, Dara, espouses more open-minded beliefs and harmony between religions. What starts off as a petty sibling rivalry ends up shaping the future of Islam and its nations as we know them today.

But to dramatise a powerful story is not necessarily to make a story powerful: the telling of any tale is always more important than the tale itself, and Dara unfortunately reminds us of this. With such a rich historical and cultural context to communicate to the audience, the play is weighed down by the density of its subject – an inevitable problem for any production billed as an ‘epic’. There is a lot to cram in: characters and plots become convoluted, the dialogue is overwrought, and the use of flashbacks to show the roots of the sibling rivalry is not always elucidating.

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The actors tackle their parts with the necessary vigour. Zubin Varla is a flawed yet dignified Dara, and Sargon Yelda brings a Machiavellian streak to Aurangzeb. But we’re left with too black and white a picture of the brothers, one full of admirable, if didactic wisdom, the other a ruthless and hypocritical persecutor.

That said, the production is visually superb. Katrina Lindsay’s set design and Neil Austin’s chiaroscuro lighting are both magnificently evocative of Mughal India. The use of exotic smells, dance and music helps to alleviate some of the more hard-going moments of the play, and helps to conjure Dara’s vision for a richer Islamic culture.

Dara is a commendably ambitious play, but it never quite earns the heights it aims for. The play is so self-conscious of its potential to be hard-hitting that it becomes wrapped up in itself – and ultimately loses the audience in its tracks.

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