IT’S taken her over 10 years as a theatre director, and a story about feuding siblings in the Mughal empire for Nadia Fall to get the stamp of approval from her father.
Knee-deep in rehearsals the week before Christmas, Fall explained the story of Dara, her latest production at London’s National Theatre which delves into the incendiary family dynamics of two brothers who are fighting each other ferociously for the throne.
“It’s the first time my dad’s been really engaged with my work and he’s really helped with the research. For the first time, it was a sense of approval from my father and a genuine investment in what I do,” Fall said.
When she expressed an interest in attending the Brit School, a performing arts centre in south London, her father questioned: “What are you going to be, a dancer?”
“I knew it was something they greatly disapproved of, but if you have a compulsion towards something you have a compulsion towards something,” said Fall.
As a director, she is resolute on not being defined as someone who only tells stories from her cultural background. “I’m more interested in doing stories about love or hate or about how we are as human beings,” she said.
Dara, an epic historical play written by Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem and which has been adapted by Tanya Ronder for the National, certainly explores these themes.
“Tanya has made it really visceral and about family dynamics and what it means to be the favorite, and what it means to be the black sheep and all that stuff that we do to each other in families,” Fall told Eastern Eye during her lunch break in between rehearsals.
“In the middle of this epic dynasty which saw over 200 years of rule by a family who came from modern Uzbekistan, was a prince called Dara.
“He was heir apparent and the chosen one by his father Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, and all is not well because his brother Aurangzeb wants to take his seat on the throne and be the next emperor.
“They have two very different visions of what it is to be a leader and what it is to be a Muslim.
Dara is very embracing of all the different cultures and religions in India, so he was known to be the Sufi poet, he translated a lot of Hindu scripts and was a friend of the Sikhs.
“Aurangzeb was quite strict and wanted to see an almost Sharia version of Islam take place in India. That was the schism,” Fall said.
Theatre is her life, and she has little time for anything else at the moment, her schedule is jam packed – it has taken several attempts to set up the interview. Her family are all from India, her father’s side hailing from old Delhi, and her mum is of Kashmiri heritage.
Perhaps for the first time in a long time, audiences will be presented with divergent interpretations of Islam in Dara, some far removed from the visions of extremist Kalashnikov wielding jihadists who seem ubiquitous on television screens.
“It gives us different ways of looking at the religion which will be a first for a lot of people – that there is a more mystical Sufi way, there are people who feel you can be a Muslim and be inclusive and there are those who don’t and it boils down to people and how we interpret (faith).”
The young director who started out in Tara Arts, an Asian theatre company based in south London, worked on Home last year, which received reviews. Set in a fictional hostel, it questioned what it meant to call somewhere home.
Her other recent work includes Hobson’s Choice at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and Disgraced at the Bush Theatre. Dara will be Fall’s fifth production as director at the Southbank’s National Theatre.
But with half her cast currently performing in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by David Hare, having access to her actors is quite a challenge.
“Dara didn’t have to have an Asian cast, but it was important, it was a challenge to have two plays on and you want actors who are the best in it,” she said.
The cast includes Esh Alladi, Nathalie Armin, Rudi Dharmalingam, and Emilio Doorgasingh.
“There’s a young generation who are coming up, who are very tasty and interesting perhaps because they are second-generation and their parents don’t have hang-ups about the arts,” said Fall, who is mother to a nine-year-old boy.
What are the creative challenges of recreating a culturally rich era of opulence, ornate architechture and heavily adorned outfits?
Fall is reluctant to give too much away, but revealed the set is more expressionistic and the costumes and music provide a level of authenticity. With a live qawwali band, Dara is set to be a feast of the senses.
“I didn’t want it to be too simplistically Asian, so it feels like a tandoori version of India, we’ve taken some artistic liberty so Dara has got an identity,” Fall said.
“It’s written in lots of short scenes – almost cinematically, so I have to move it along quite fast without stopping each time, so you can’t really set up a scene too much because it’s time to go.
“The tone is tricky, it’s heightened and feels very Greek to me, but at the same time it’s very personal and naturalistic in its psychology, so it’s about getting the levels right, it’s like cooking.”
So what next for the ambitious young director in her mid thirties? Fall gained attention from Home last year when an interest in making a film or television productions out of it was expressed by a few people. That might still happen, she said.
“I like that medium, I’d love to do something new. I had a pilot idea for Channel Four recently. But theatre is my first love, so it’s hard to have an affair with film, but maybe one day…”
■ Dara runs from January 20 to April 4 in the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre.