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This adaptation of a play originally performed by Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan deals with an important, timely subject: the beginnings of the philosophical differences within Islam. The story is a passionate, often violent exploration of family conflict, sibling rivalry and military power during the 17th century Mughal Empire, which took in much of the Indian subcontinent.

Dara and Aurangzeb, eldest sons of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, fight over the succession and represent opposite interpretations of Islam. Dara, a poet sympathetic to Sufism, the mystical core of Islam, is a lover of music and the arts, advocates tolerance of all religions and is eventually killed by his austere brother, who goes on to rule, conscience-racked, for nearly half a century.

It is an extremely complicated story, especially for uninformed Western audiences, and Tanya Ronder’s lively adaptation does not solve all its problems. Without the excellent programme’s briefing, the first scenes – labelled by date and place, but not in chronological sequence – could be bewildering. The central court scene, which showcases the arguments at the centre of the human drama, is gripping, however, and skilfully handled by director Nadia Fall.

Niraj Chag provides soulful, rhythmic music as dozens of characters people Katrina Lindsay’s ravishing design in which the stage becomes an animated Mughal painting. Marble arches and movable lattice screens form a backdrop to vibrantly coloured, voluminously skirted costumes of jewelled silks bedecked with ropes of pearls.

Zubin Varla as Dara and Sargon Yelda as Aurangzeb bring psychological complexity to the warring brothers, while Ronder’s invented character, the eunuch Itbar Chook Sibtain, represents the stoic acceptance of the powerless.

  • Lyttelton, National Theatre, London
  • January 20-April 4, PN January 27
  • Authors: Shahid Nadeem, Tanya Ronder adaptation
  • Director: Nadia Fall
  • Design: Katrina Lindsay set/costume, Neil Austin lighting, Carolyn Downing sound, Niraj Chag music
  • Technical: Diana Willmott production manager, Liam Steel movement, Kate Waters fight director, Laura Flowers stage manager, Charlotte Bevan casting, Japjit Kaur vocal music director, Ola Ince staff director Anwar Akhtar production consultant Sabine LeMaitre costume supervisor Emma Pile digital art Adele Brandman wigs, hair and mak-eup supervisor, Rebecca Johnston prop supervisor, Neill Pollard lighting supervisor Ethan Forde production video engineer, Dominic Bilkey production sound engineer Paul Wankin special effects supervisor
  • Cast includes: Zubin Varla, Vincent Ebrahim, Sargon Yelda, Nathalie Armin, Chook Sibtain, Anjana Vasan, Scott Karim
  • Producer: National Theatre
  • Running time: 2hrs 35mins

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