THE MUGHAL EMPIRE: MURDER, FAITH AND FAMILY
OK, I admit it, I feared “Important and Worthy”. Or, possibly, important-worthy-yet-picturesque. A reasonable, if ungenerous fear, with the author Shaheed Nadeem of Ajoka theatre a Pakistani human-rights campaigner and prisoner of conscience, and his 17c history-play billed as politically relevant to the subcontinent’s history (including the irresponsible Partition of India and Pakistan, still tormenting South Asia) . I should have had more faith. Tanya Ronder was adapting, a Hytner-hunch had chosen it, and many of the cast are the splendid ensemble from BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS , also still running.
The early part of the play, dreamily attractive as it is – latticed screens, flowing veils, Mughal magnificence, turbans, peacock feathers, scimitars – did have me floating free for a while, though Nadia Fall directs with enough clarity – and the programme notes help – to explain the 1659 struggle between the sons of Shah Jahan (a choleric little Vincent Ebrahim) for the imperial throne. . Spirited flashbacks, signalled in text projections, kept the characters distinct : the ultimately victorious Aurungzeb (Sargon Yelda) who never felt a favourite son, and Dara (Zubin Varla) the mystic and poet he defeats. Not least, in a nice folkloric detail, by bribing Dara’s general to persuade the leader to leave his elephant for a nippier horse, whereon his troops saw the empty howdah and panicked. The sisters, equally at odds, are spiritedly played by Nathalie Armin and Anneika Rose; a younger brother is recruited, then murdered, by Aurungzeb.
But suddenly, this set-up complete, we came to the showtrial of the captured Dara for apostasy from Islam. And wham! The play takes off, reveals its molten core as a demonstration of spiritual idealism and argument against authoritarian religious pedantry, with slamming echoes into our own century. It feels like seeing Tyndale in Written On the Heart, or More in A Man for All Seasons or St Joan: all who held to faith and died for it down the ages and the dramatic canon.
As Dara’s interest in Hindu scriptures is cited against him by the positively Cromwellian prosecutor – Prasanna Puwanarajah – Varla rises in dignity and energy in a riveting half-hour trial scene. “I did not know that being a Muslim meant being ignorant of other cultures…Who cares which door you open to come into the Light …at the centre of every blossom is honey, the rest is ritual. Allow all faiths to flourish!”. Even the detail strikes home hard today – “The Prophet never intended women should hide behind screens and veils’ he scoffs, it was a practical privacy in his busy house, but others copied it. Neither, he scoffs, is the death penalty for apostasy in the Koran, only the Hadiths – which are written by fallible humans.
No surprise that on tour in India and Pakistan it has been shocking, but welcomed, a blast of greathearted spirituality in an age of bigotry: dramatically safe in a distant past but urgent today. After that superbly balanced, long, mounting scene and the inevitable sentence, the shorter last act plays quieter. There is an under-tale of smaller lives (surprising , sad and complex,Chook Sibtain as the imperial eunuch has his moment). There is a brutality, and a solemn smoky haunting of ghosts gathered around Aurungzeb like those which torment Richard III at Bosworth. The final flash- forward to his deathbed is pure Shakespeare: remorse, longing for love, mortality, and acceptance of how fallible are those whose willpower shapes nations.