the good, the bad and the dead
My first impressions were that yes, my expectations had indeed been met. I was particularly impressed with the staging bought to life by Katrina Lindsay, it was simple yet clever in completely immersing the audience into the world of Mughal drama. Dara, a story full of double crossing and mind games between two waring parties was surprisingly easy to follow. The highlight of the play is the scene where Dara (Zubin Varla) speaks with such passion in front of the Shariah court. The actors, music, the dance scenes, and costume all worked really well in bringing to life 1650s India.
But something about this play didn't sit right with me as an audience member. The more I watched the play unfold on this gorgeous stage, the more something niggled away at me. And I realised that yes, disappointingly, Dara fell into that age old trap of portraying female characters as one dimensional. Their roles were simple, they functioned only as catalysts for plot development. It was the men that we hoped for, that we held out breath for, who we were invited to explore as complex and multi faceted characters. While I accept that this is ultimately a play about the relationship and lives of two brothers, I am still disappointed in how the women are depicted as simple one dimensional characters.
The male characters have depth and evolve throughout. The play spans over the course of their lives from childhood into adulthood. Aurengzeb's (Sargon Yelda) tyranny is contextualised within his childhood experiences, through the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, and the dysfunctional royal household led by his alcoholic grandfather. He is not just painted as a villain, but a complex character encompassing the traits of both perpetrator and victim. Even Dara, is not a straight forward hero, he too has flaws in his character which make him human allowing the audience to relate to him as man.
We are presented two sisters, Jahanara, (Natalie Armin) the good sister, light skinned, dressed in pastel colours, full of compassion and selfless empathy for her family members. And on the other hand we have Roshanara played by Annieka Rose, darker skinned than her sister, bright colour wearing, lustful and selfish. We see the pivotal role Roshanara plays in exacerbating the vengeful nature of Aurengzeb, her character is seen to lead Aurengzeb down the path of revenge and destruction, almost exonerating Aurengzeb of his actions.
Neither woman has her own story, the script does not allow the women to voice their own journeys. They are static characters, who under go no transformations, nor are we invited to concern ourselves with their outcomes in the play.
Two women who have been further disempowered in this piece, is the figure of Mumtaz Mahal, the mother, and Hira Bai (Anjana Vasan) the dead lover of Aurengzeb. Both women are voiceless, Hira Bai speaking only in one scene where she tempts Aurengzeb to stray from Islam. Here she is seen "testing" Aurengzeb's love for her by drinking alcohol. She represents lust, she is the body that silently dances, albeit beautifully, throughout the play.
Even the spaces allowed to women are used to highlight disempowerment and duplicity. We have both Jahanara and her father confined to the Zenana, a female space used to humiliate the old emperor. During the court scene, it is the space reserved for women in the balcony where we see the cowardice and underhanded nature of Aurengzeb and Roshanara manifest itself to its full height.
Throughout the play we witness discussions about liberal Islam, and the progressions made by Islam for women, drawing attention to the the current political climate around Islam in its liberal and extremist forms. Simultaneous to this exploration, we are presented with female characters who are restricted to stereotypical roles, disempowered through a lack of voice, and the lack of subtle nuances that compel audiences to emotionally invest in the female characters.
While I am excited that more work from the South Asian diaspora are coming forward and taking their place within the British arts scene, the experience of women must move beyond a space reserved for good/ bad, mother/ whore dichotomies.