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Dara: A Battle for Hearts and Minds

07/04/2015 17:02 BST | Updated 07/06/2015 10:59 BST

Dara Shikoh

Set in 17th century India, Dara tells the story of two Royal brothers - Aurangzeb (Sargon Yelda) and Dara (Zubin Varla) - who are pitted against each other in a battle for succession. In a poignant reminder of how little has changed in 400 years, Puritanism competes with opulence, regression with enlightenment, and dogma with humanism.

These tensions are stoked by Mughal emperor and patriarch Shah Jahan, who chastises the young Aurangzeb in a memorable scene where his head is dunked into cold water. When Aurangzeb eventually inherits the Peacock Throne, he abuses his power and trades on his reputation as a Muslim fundamentalist. In chilling echoes of the contemporary treatment meted out to apostates from Islam, he sets up a sham trial against his brother, on charges of apostasy. The charges against the Prince are translating sacred Hindu texts into Persian, and wearing a cross around his neck. However, Dara is no apostate - he merely thinks that other religions have a grain of truth in them as well. This culminates in an explosive 30-minute Sharia Court scene, which contains the most compelling dialogue of the whole play. Dara gives a passionate eulogy to pluralism and the importance of empathising with the so-called other, brandishing his shackles at the audience: "Who cares which door you open to come into the light?" The prosecutor does justice to the sniping, tribalistic, propagandist nature of many religious fundamentalists. He even tries to outsmart the judge, who retorts: "I'm not asleep up here, you know!"

There are several moments of sardonic humour like this, which act as a counterfoil to the deadly serious issues being pursued. We learn that Princess Jahanara's clothes catch fire, and that Chook Sibtain's eunuch character, sold by his parents into slavery, later commits suicide (a shadowy hanging is the most haunting part of the entire two and a half hours, which is a testament to Katrina Lindsay's set design).

What is unique about Dara, as a paean to Muslim history and culture, is the role of memorable women, whether it is the wisdom and benevolence of Jahanara (a huge ally of Dara's, played superbly by Nathalie Armin), or the antipathy of Roshanara. Even the supposedly prim and proper Aurangzeb is captivated by a Hindu woman (Hira, played by Anjana Vasan). Despite his un-gentlemanly declarations about her "dry hair and mean eyes," he genuinely seems to fall in love with her, and is never the same after her death.

Even when the dispute between Aurangzeb and Dara sinks to barbaric lows, the play gives us flashes of humanity, most notably from Scott Karim's semi-clothed fakir. A Sufi fortune-teller, he extols the benefits of music, plucks apples for the Palace without any expectation of reward, and asks the swaddled characters what they are hiding underneath their long clothes. Is religion a vehicle for leading a simple life and serving humanity, or part of a capitalist, expansionist project? It would have been interesting if this theme was explored further. This, and the initial confusion surrounding the chronology of events, were the only two flaws of Dara. Director Nadia Fall, playwrights Tanya Ronder and Shahid Nadeem, and the whole team behind Dara should be very proud of themselves indeed (and full credit to The Samosa blog for bringing it to London's National Theatre). This play should be required viewing for school pupils across the UK (particularly those who are exposed to a singular, rigid interpretation of Islam), and I am pleased that it has been recorded with this aim in mind.