Guards at the Taj (Bush Theatre)

Posted: April 27, 2017 in Theatre


“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock” (The Third Man). In India they produced the Taj Mahal.

American writer Rajiv Joseph’s 80 minute one-act play, first seen Off-Broadway in 2015, is a fresh examination of the links between beauty and beastliness. Humayun and Babur are young friends, charged with standing guard at dawn in front of the near-complete Taj, not allowed to speak nor to look at the glorious monument behind them. They do both. Humayun (Danny Ashok) is a conformist who knows the rules imposed by a totalitarian Emperor and abides by them. He berates the errant Babur (Darren Kupan), a sensitive idealist who dreams of freedom and a life filled with beauty.

The Taj, a breathtaking structure of white marble inlaid with priceless gems, was built as a memorial to the Emperor’s lost love, but a price for its creation was paid in human blood. When the two guards are forced to execute their ruler’s callous and barbaric edicts, their friendship becomes strained and Babur comes to believe that he has “killed beauty”. Joseph realises that events as harrowing as those described can best be dramatised in the form of pitch black comedy and much of the joy of his play comes from his skill in blending tragedy and comedy together. Guards at the Taj is funny, shocking and heartbreaking all at the same time.

It is reasonable to assume that Jamie Lloyd’s production here is very different from that seen in New York. The two guards can be readily identified as modern British Asian men from their speech and their characters and, perhaps surprisingly, Joseph’s dialogue fits this interpretation perfectly. Ashok and Kupan create a chemistry that, in other circumstances, could make them rivals for any double act on the comedy circuit, their laddish banter, dashed with absurdism and surreal dreams. Their characters hope that their efforts at the Taj will be rewarded by an assignment to guard at the Emperor’s harem, where perhaps they will be allowed to look; they dream of a simple life in the forest where they can enjoy all the beauties of nature and leave all the horrors and injustices that they have become involved in behind.

Soutra Gilmour’s barren set design, with a raised battlement for guard duty and ditches filled with water, appears through a dusty mist in Richard Howell’s atmospheric lighting. The setting befits the play’s grizzly narrative, while allowing its irreverent humour to shine. This production marks a triumphant return for the newly refurbished Bush Theatre.

Performance date: 26 April 2017

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