In the theatre, people cough and wriggle in their seats, sometimes shuffling their feet and whispering to one another; occasionally, they have to deal with the ringing of an errant cellphone. That's not a complaint or criticism; it's just the way it is but you know an audience is transfixed when that background noise dies away and you can't even hear the person next to you breathing.
It's a testament to Prayas Theatre that it achieves this with Dara, a complex production which explores some of the most troublesome and topical ideas of our time: religious (in)tolerance and freedom to express one's beliefs.
History can be a justification for the way things are as much as the lens to look through and assess how things might be changed if only the people in the past had done things slightly differently. Award-winning Pakistani writer Shahid Nadeem has taken an epic story from the Indian subcontinent's history – the war of succession in the 17th Mughal Empire – to do the latter.
Dara could be played as family drama about the grand ambitions of warring princes but Nadeem rightly sees it as more relevant and thought-provoking to focus on the religious divide between Dara and his more forceful sibling Aurangzeb. The former is an Islamic moderate, desirous of religious freedom and aware that scripture is manipulated to serve survivalist not spiritual goals; the latter a fundamentalist with a brutal edge.
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At times the play, translated into English by Tanya Ronder for a 2015 production at the National Theatre in London, risks slipping into feeling like a history or religious studies lecture. A courtroom scene, where the brothers go head-to-head with their theological arguments, is compelling but somewhat one-sided - it's obvious Nadeem is on Dara's side – so perhaps more nuance might have been used.
But that's the play itself, not this production. Recognising this, the co-directors of Prayas' Dara, Amit Ohdedar and Sananda Chatterjee, use simple but effective lighting, evocative sound effects and slick staging to ratchet up the tension.
Explosive fight scenes, which open and close the production, coupled with Padma Akula's stunning costumes add to the drama which is every bit as tragic, bloody and human as you see in Shakespeare. An extra layer of sensory interest comes from Indian theatre traditions, using music and dance to add dynamism and sensuality.
In all of this, Ohdedar and Chatterjee are ably assisted by a cast who turn in some astonishing performances. Prateek Vadgaonkar (Dara) and Rishabh Kapoor (Aurangzeb) command the stage every time they appear; Dhruv Mody, as a Sufi mystic, is spell-binding. Both the princes and their sisters are seen in their younger years and, once again, the junior members of the cast are convincing in their portrayals.
What's more impressive is that Prayas is a community theatre - most of these people have day jobs that take them far away from the stage. But in its 12-year history, Prayas, New Zealand's first Indian theatre company, has become an influential player in Auckland's theatre scene because it's presenting work we wouldn't otherwise get to see and doing so in a way that shows the best of global theatre traditions.
It attracts professionals like producer Ahi Karunaharan, acting coach Margaret Mary-Hollins, fight choreographer Alexander Holloway and digital designer Julie Zhu to work with it and, in doing so, advances with each production. Dara is an astounding achievement and shows how far Prayas has come.
Where & when: TAPAC, until Sunday, June 24
Reviewer: Dionne Christian