Theatre Critic and Journalist

Interview: Zubin Varla

Interview: Zubin Varla

Published in The Stage, 23.01.2015

Zubin Varla’s voice precedes him. It’s deep and resonant – so deep and resonant, in fact, that playing him back on tape makes his speech sound slow-motion. You hear its depth before you can make out his words. It’s a barrel-chested voice; the voice of a giant. So, when Varla walks in, shorter than I’d expected, it comes as a bit of a disconnect.

He’s both hard and soft-edged at once: bearded in a fuzzy blue jumper, but also shaven-headed with a diamond glinting from his left ear. That might explain a CV that swerves from the good to the bad, the beautiful to the monstrous. How many Romeos have gone on to play Caliban? How do you go from Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing to a pock-marked, pustulous De Flores in The Changeling?

“There was definitely a point where I got uglier,” jokes Varla, sat louchely crossed-legged in the National’s press office. He’s one of those actors with a talent for transformation. Think back to his Thersites in that ill-fated Troilus and Cressida, an RSC/Wooster Group mash-up: wheelchair bound, dragged up, soiled and lipstick-smeared, cursing the world in the acidic Mancunian accent of David Hoyle. “That language is so bitter and bilious. It’s delightful to play.”

It goes back to playacting, for Varla. “We’re really good at that as kids. Some of us get shy, some of us lose it and some have it hammered out of us. But some of us retain some of that childishness. Perhaps its just a lack of fear and a willingness to be humiliated and have your balls, literally, hanging out.” (Yep, Thersites again.)

It’s a long way again to his next role: Dara Shikoh, heir to the Mughal Empire in 17th Century India, who preached tolerance against his brother Aurangzeb’s regime. Aurangzeb enforced Sharia law on his people, forbidding Hindus to practice their faith. Dara, a pluralist, insisted that all religious beliefs aim at a single truth, at one true god. He was tried for apostasy.

That trial is the centrepiece of Shahid Nadeem’s play, adapted for the National Theatre by Tanya Ronder. On the stand, Dara defends both his faith in Islam and his respect for other faiths; positions that are in no way irreconcilable. Varla took the role, in part, to give voice to that onstage. “That’s what you get into this job to do,” he says. “If Dara represents anything, it’s love of humanity and how wonderful diversity is; how much it lends our existence, our culture, our knowledge.”

The story has historical value – “these were men who rode elephants into battle,” Varla stresses – and it’s not widely know. Varla’s Indian mother knew it, but he didn’t, even having been the to Taj Mahal. “My guide talked extensively about the Mughals and Shah Jahan, but not a word of Aurangzeb and Dara.”

The play stems from a very different theatrical tradition, shot through with music. Ronder’s adaptation draws on its Shakespearean quality, and, says Varla, “dances between the contemporary and the elegant and regal.” He’s clearly relished the research, rattling off his reading from Dara’s writing to religious texts such as the Uphanishads and the Bhagvad Gita.

Still, it’s the contemporary resonance that will land, given the current of absolutism and fundamentalism around, particularly post-Paris. Varla sees it as “a huge responsibility, standing on a stage to deliver that sort of message.”

“That’s what theatre’s always strived to do,” he says. “It’s about telling stories, finding new, exiting ways to tells stories. We try to reflect the times we live in, the stories we live through and to tell them in ways that draw new audiences.”

It’s why he loves working with an experimental edge, with directors like Katie Mitchell (Attempts on Her Life), Mark Ravenhill (Troilus and Cressida) and Joe Hill-Gibbins (The Changeling). “Joe’s great. He brings a rock’n’roll freedom to it.”

For his part, Hill-Gibbins sees something similar in Varla: “this irrepressible desire to just get up and do it. He shoots first and asks questions later.”

Varla says he has “a methodology” of his own, but he’s happier submitting to a director’s approach in a rehearsal room. “They’re offering me a new canvas to play on and new tools to play with.” He can do his own work at home, using a Russian approach – Michael Chekhov’s primarily – that he picked up at Guildhall. “It’s a school of thought that says, yes, intellect is right and you must go back to intentions, objectives and super-objectives, but why not start from your instinct and creative imagination, which is far more powerful than you know.”

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