Court, be seated. You’re here today to hear evidence in the trial of freelance critic Ms Maddy Costa, who is charged by all associated with the production of Dara at the Royal National Theatre, London, with dereliction of duty in the execution of her review of said production for the internet publication Exeunt. [We would like to draw your attention to Exhibit A, the review.] It is the opinion of the prosecution that in writing and speech Ms Costa has indulged a lack of objectivity, failed to appreciate the distinct qualities of an exceptionally well-made play, and, dare we say it, demonstrated a hankering for exoticism that is tantamount to racism.
Counsel for the prosecution: Ms Costa! Silence, please! People of the Jury, note that, with an arrogance typical of her kind, Ms Costa has chosen to represent herself in this trial. So, let’s begin. Ms Costa: you saw this production on Tuesday the 27th of January 2015 and, during the interval, sent a text message to a friend describing it as “punishingly dull”. [We would like to draw your attention to Exhibit B, said friend’s own response to Dara, distributed via the social media network Twitter.] And yet, is it not true that you were engrossed by the long trial scene that ends the first half, that, in fact, you agreed with the venerable gentleman Matthew Trueman’s assessment of that scene as [please turn to Exhibit C] “right up there with Galileo’s or Shylock’s”?
MC: I admit, I found the Sharia court scene intermittently interesting: Shakespearean in stature, but with a dash of TV thriller for comic relief. I like a meaty intellectual debate and this one – in which Dara, a Sufi poet in 17th-century India, is accused of apostasy by his younger brother and rival for imperial power Aurangzeb, and stands trial against a congregation of ultraconservative mullahs – has “modern relevance” stamped all over it. Dara presents a vision of Islam as generous, responsive, humane and open-minded, whose purpose is to enable its followers to “realise the best in ourselves”. In which case, who wouldn’t want to be Muslim? The text of the Qu’ran, he argues, is “bound up with the specifics of the time and place from whence it sprang”; the prophet Muhammed was a “strategist” who devised pragmatic tactics – for instance, that his many wives should wear the hijab – to suit his circumstances. It is generations of men since, he continues, who have transformed what Muhammed “evolved through necessity” into rigid and punitive rules that ossify Islamic teachings and have no genuine relationship with God’s thoughts. Dara’s is the Islam barely glimpsed amid the bombardment of news stories of jihadi this and fundamentalist that; no wonder it’s given so much prominence here.
In Zubin Varla’s impassioned performance, Dara is charismatic, quick and wise; knowing that the odds are stacked against him – a trope familiar in drama since the ancient Greeks – heightens the tragic emotion of the scene. But it’s the similarity of Dara to Shakespearean and Greek drama to which I object.
CftP: But it is true, is it not, that you have neither seen nor read Shahid Nadeem’s play, premiered by Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan in 2010, on which this production is based; and, moreover, that you are generally ignorant of the drama of the Indian sub-continent. And you readily admit that this adaptation by Tanya Ronder is meticulously crafted in its integration of family drama with matters of state and religion – in fact, it is known that you snorted with vehement disagreement on reading Ms Fiona Mountford’s assessment [please turn to Exhibit D] in metropolitan newspaper the Evening Standard, that: “Ronder would have done better to offer a straightforward linear narrative to navigate more easily through these complex events.” You not only were kept awake by the story’s somersaults across time and geography, but admired the subtlety with which Ronder created echoes through the play of a moralistic fable in which an emperor exchanges all his wealth and land for a simple glass of water. So please, tell us, what exactly is your problem?
MC: Um, the perpetual and insidious colonialism of western theatre culture? Dara is a play preoccupied with different presentations of power: the power of religion, of men, of emperors, of wisdom, of mysticism, of wealth, of aesthetics, of structures, all of them illuminated, some competing for supremacy. I see the structure of the play – and whether it’s Ronder’s or Nadeem’s, I don’t know – as another demonstration of power: the power of the culture of a former colonialist over the storytelling of its one-time subjects. Look at what Ronder says in the programme: “Ajoka’s production was bold, beautifully exuberant and colourful with music and dance central to the show, but we needed more context, more drama as we knew it [my emphasis], to give us more knowledge and less reason to detach from the tale…” Nadia Fall’s production is bold: it has immense dramatic sweep, and a massive cast of actors, most of them Asian, which is genuinely exciting to see on the Lyttelton stage; Katrina Lindsay’s considered design transforms that huge stage into a series of grand and intimate spaces using a sequence of sliding ornate metal screens. It’s beautiful and colourful, too, with flowing costumes in sumptuously patterned satins. But exuberant? Hell, no. The three musicians are kept firmly in the background for all but about five minutes; I wanted them central, and for dance to happen in more than just scene changes.
CftP: So essentially what you’re saying is that you wanted this to be more stereotypically “eastern”. How can you deny that this desire for an othered exoticism is anything but a racist expression?
MC: I realise that’s what it sounds like and it makes me uncomfortable. I had a long discussion with playwright Daniel York in 2013 [Exhibit E] in which he accused me of exactly that: advocating black, Asian and minority ethnic cultural specificity in theatre in a way that pompously and criminally denies people of colour’s individual expression. So I’m brutally aware that I’m on shaky ground here. And yet, it’s my feeling that Dara has been anglicised to suit the core – white, middle-class – National Theatre audience. Ronder herself says in the programme that she sought to appeal to “a British audience, used to more psychological and emotionally rounded drama”. It’s that transformation into Serious Proscenium-Arch Drama that made me feel bored.
CtfP: But surely you accept that the National must appeal to its core audience if it’s to sell tickets for this production? The Lyttelton seats over 1000 people: that’s a huge responsibility.
MC: I do; I accept also that I’m temperamentally ill-disposed towards the well-made play. That temperament means I’m unconvinced that more “drama as we [know] it” is a force for improvement here. I gather from the programme that Nadeem presents a very one-sided version of Dara’s story, so again, it’s impossible to tell where this comes from, but the character of Aurangzeb is problematically thin. Ronder shows him taking revenge for a Islamic mystic’s prophecy that he will seize power violently (shades of Greek tragedy again, and also Macbeth), mourning the sudden death of his Hindu lover, crying for the lack of his father’s affection – each brief vignette designed to give this Mughal Emperor, who might otherwise come across as a corrupt monster, a modicum of humanity. Instead, it diminishes him: he is sulky and pathetic, outshone by his more complex and charismatic brother.
CftP: So not only do you admit that you desire greater exoticism from the production, you condemn it for not suiting your erratic and anarchic tastes. People of the Jury, I have no more questions. Court in recess.