Imagine a world where wudu is sexy. Not the soothing, somewhat impractical habit we know and love, but real come hither performance of ritual ablution. I can guess what you’re thinking but it turns out such a feat is indeed possible and they managed to depict it in the recent National Theatre production of Dara, a play exploring the conflict between two of the Mughal empire’s defining leaders: Shah Jahan’s sons Dara Shikoh and his brother Aurangzeb.

Wudu here is imported into the life of Hindu dancing girl Hira Bai, by her Muslim master. While pouring water up her nose, Prince Aurangzeb’s favourite sassy slave girl takes on a coquettish air, enlivening his measured palace existence and mitigating his tense relationship with his father. To Aurangzeb’s dismay, Hira’s positivity is lost forever when she dies young and he becomes a dogmatic, despotic ruler in her absence. Intent on controlling his family’s vast and varied empire through conservative Islam, he locks himself in an ideological power struggle with his Sufi-inclined brother, Dara.

Dara, at Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, 20 January – 4 April 2015

Originally written in Urdu by multilingual Pakistani writer Shahid Nadeem in 2010, this adaptation by Tanya Ronder was commissioned by departing artistic director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner. It covers the years 1659-1707 during which time Aurangzeb held power. Does the choice to adapt a play by a fluent English-speaking playwright, rather than commission him to translate it concern you too?  Let’s talk about it later. Suffice to say this adaptation could have been an exploratory philosophical freewheeler of a play. Instead, Ronder squeezes its themes into a family saga, binds it in an unconvincing love story and seals it with uncomfortably reductive notions of Islam that come to a head in a crowd-pleasing court room scene.

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