Dara, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London
The action of Dara never shifts from 17th-century India — evoked here in a visually ravishing production — but the problems it addresses simply could not be more contemporary. Written by Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, this epic, restless drama focuses on a rift in the imperial household. But far from being a rather remote dynastic squabble, the story boils up to a thrilling trial in which Dara’s more liberal understanding of Islam comes up against his brother’s hardline reading. The play is heavy-going to begin with and some of the dialogue is stiff and flat but the trial is riveting and both play and production deftly portray a world whose troubles press into our own.
nationaltheatre.org.uk, 020 7452 3000, to April 4
Jefferson’s Garden, Palace Theatre, Watford
Timberlake Wertenbaker, author of Our Country’s Good, was in the news most recently for undertaking the mammoth task of adapting Tolstoy’s War and Peace for BBC Radio 4, which devoted the whole of New Year’s Day to the 10-part series. Now she returns with a similarly epic subject but contained within the confines of a couple of hours on the stage. The Jefferson of the title is Thomas Jefferson and the story is that of a young Quaker who finds his beliefs conflicted when he both befriends Jefferson and falls in love with a runaway slave woman who is fighting for the British. Brigid Larmour directs.
watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk, 01923 225671, to February 21
Scuttlers, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Rona Munro’s new play explores the world of 19th-century gangs in Manchester — a byproduct of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. Set in 1885 and directed by Wils Wilson, the drama evokes the cramped and noisy world in which gangs fought for territorial supremacy and bragging rights in the sort of battles that have repeated from the 19th century right up to the present day.
royalexchange.co.uk, 016 1833 9833, to March 7
The Absence of War, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
An election campaign; an embattled Labour leader; hostile press; argument about how best to proceed: no, it’s not 2015. The inspiration for David Hare’s play (the final drama in his trilogy about British institutions) was his close involvement with the Labour party in the run-up to the 1992 election — and the playwright has not changed the script for Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong theatre company revival. Reece Dinsdale plays George, the fictitious leader of the opposition who is struggling with his image and the many conflicting voices around him.
sheffieldtheatres.co.uk, 0114 249 6000to February 21, then touring
Blasted, Crucible Theatre (Studio), Sheffield
It was the play that, in 1995, blasted Sarah Kane into the headlines. Now, 20 years on, Richard Wilson revives it as part of a season dedicated to this immensely talented playwright. A tabloid journalist brings a young woman, Cate, to a room in a Leeds hotel. What passes between them is disturbing enough but when a soldier enters the room, bringing with him the hideousness of a war zone, the play tips into a gruesome new dimension. It plays like a scream of despair from the writer, who was appalled at the idea that television was desensitising viewers to terrible news and images from distant wars.
sheffieldtheatres.co.uk, 0114 249 6000, to February 21
Educating Rita, Liverpool Playhouse, Liverpool
To celebrate the play’s 35th birthday, artistic director Gemma Bodinetz directs a new production of Willy Russell’s classic comedy about education, class and academia. Leanne Best plays Rita, the working class Liverpudlian hairdresser who, seeking to change her life and expand her horizons, enrols in an Open University course in English Literature — only to discover that her tutor, Frank (played by Con O’Neill), is disillusioned and cynical.
www.everymanplayhouse.com 015 1709 4776, February 10-March 7
The Secret’s Out, Lyric (Secret Theatre), Hammersmith, London
Over the two years since the Secret Theatre company was established at the Lyric, it has produced six shows: some productions of established texts; some new works. The key fact about each one was that the audience would attend it with no idea of what play they were about to see. Now the company brings them all together for a two-week repertory showing and introduces a seventh: Joel Horwood’s A Stab in the Dark. The project finishes with a flourish, playing all seven plays over one weekend (February 28-March 1).
lyric.co.uk, 020 8741 6850, February 12-March 1
Photograph: Ellie Kurttz
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