I went to see a play at the National Theatre last evening. Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DARA, named after the rightful heir to Shahjehan ( of the great Mughal dynasty ) from whom was snatched the Peacock Throne by an overzealous younger brother, Aurengzeb. A story that feeds on power-play dominating the dynasties of yore ; passion, ambition, jealousy and political intrigue playing a decisive hand in the way history eventually shaped up.
A single line in the play brought the house down.
In a flashback to a relatively serene past, Emperor Shahjehan is seen fooling around with his brood in the palace gardens – teasing one, gently admonishing the other, sharing with his children his vision for the Mughals while testing them on their knowledge, as dads often do.
“So tell me about the King of France” he thunders.
Who? … did you mean Kind Charles, father..?” enquires a shy, teenage Aurangzeb.
“NO, NO…I’m not talking about that tiny little insignificant island NEXT TO France..” snaps Shahjehan with contempt.
The audience roared.
Not least because these lines were being spoken on that very “tiny little insignificant island” last evening before a predominantly English audience. The benefit of hindsight made it ironic too, bringing to mind our colonial association with the British which, unknown to Shahjehan at the time, lay yards away from his door.
The National Theatre pitched this production with characteristic gusto – making it hard to resist for anyone who loves a good story!
I got the tickets early and chose my vantage point.
What impressed me the MOST about the play were its production values. The set design was breathtaking, impressively recreating the opulence of a Mughal palace with elegant, authentic detailing. Huge metal screens adorned with intricate patterns, a lotus pond here, a dark, forbidding dungeon there, rich jacquard upholstery and soft velvet behind dreamy muslin curtains…period costumes oozing style teamed with jewels the size of eggs, flickering “mashaals” ( torches lit by naked flames ) the thunderous roar of an approaching army, a million hooves reverberating across the theatre, tender cries for mercy, daring declarations of love and lust, the haunting strains of sufi music, played live on the marble steps of a dargah ( religious shrine ) – props, costume and set-design were hugely responsible for transporting us to the right ‘zone’ for each scene, before the actors even uttered a word.
And here’s my beef with the acting – pitch perfect but a touch too loud. The two leads – Dara and Aurangzeb were superb in conveying to us their inner turmoil; Dara slowly moving away from the role expected of him as the Crown Prince and Aurangzeb, surreptitiously snaking towards the throne with scant regard for reason, tradition or blood ties!
The crux of the story lay in the trial of Dara in the Sharia Court of Law. His monologue is what made the whole story so relevant to our times, shedding light on Islam and its varied interpretations, as championed by muslims themselves. Impeccably delivered, it could have been a touch more subtle perhaps. Or maybe I am subconsciously ( unfairly! ) drawing parallels between Dara and DuBois ( Blanche )
What I really adored were the bits of Mughal history I discovered along the way, almost in passing, which had no bearing on the main narrative per se.
For instance, we’re casually told that each and every piece of marble that constitutes the Taj Mahal was first painstakingly boiled in fat to make it waterproof! Or that young, destitute boys were often sold off by their parents for paltry sums; some ended up as eunuchs in the Royal household – if they were lucky enough to survive abuse and mutilation, after being cast away as dead. Or even that our devout, teetotaller Aurangzeb was madly in love with a Hindu slave Hirabai who once challenged him to consume a glass of wine as proof of his undying love.
These little gems from DARA‘s world in 16th Century Hindustan, charmingly and passionately conveyed, made my evening. Though the two-and-a-half hours could have been shaved. Ever so slightly.
Interestingly, it’s been a whole week of flashbacks, what with 2-time Booker Prize Winner Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL finally coming to our telly as a fine BBC Drama, then dominating the papers. Henry VIII and his Tudor escapades provide enough fodder to keep us glued for another few weeks until the story concludes. With Mark Rylance ( arguably, the greatest stage actor alive ) at the helm as Thomas Cromwell, our protagonist, supported by Jonathan Pryce ( Cardinal Wolsey ) Damian Lewis ( Henry VIII ) and others, this will have the world clamouring at the gates of the BBC for international rights, almost like a Top Gear gone highbrow.
Hilary Mantel shares her views on the TV adaptation of her book and sets the scene for us beautifully in this piece.
I do have a problem, though, with both DARA and BBC’s WOLF HALL.
It’s more a problem with certain actors in both, rather than any real disagreement with the stories. In DARA, I found it virtually impossible to look Emperor Shahjehan in the eye and NOT think of ‘the dad from The Kumars at No 42’ ( different dialogue, same intonation. Alas! ) while Henry VIII, for all his rich robes and royal pursuits, looks to me like a man who is about to go “Ta-da !!! Here I am, Carrie – it’s me…Brody … all that Henry VIII stuff was just a ruse, to be able to track down Abooo Nazir…!”
And THAT, kind of, spoils the fun a little bit.
I conclude with a brilliant 5 minute video on ‘period lighting’ – something both DARA and WOLF HALL have in common ( in fact, many complained to the BBC about the inadequate lighting in WOLF HALL, moaning that viewing comfort was being sacrificed at the altar of ‘authenticity’ )
This video however focuses on the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, right next to Shakespeare’s Globe in London, which prides itself on the fact that all its productions are lit by candle. Here’s the fascinating tale of how that’s done – safely and artistically.