Guards at the Taj

Posted by Laurence Green

Touching on dark themes and questioning the human price paid at the hand of the mighty, Laurence Green reviews Rajiv Joseph’s play, Guards at the Taj.

Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok guards at the Taj

Power, privilege and duty are the themes explored by Rajiv Joseph in his 80-minute drama, Guards at the Taj, which reopens the Bush Theatre after a £4.3 million upgrade.

It’s 1648, Agra, India. Imperial guards and lifelong best friends Humayun and Babur are on security duty, keeping watch as the final touches are put to the mighty Taj Mahal behind them. The emperor, who commissioned the building as a memorial to his favourite wife, has decreed that no one except the masons, labourers and slaves who exist within those wall, shall turn to look at the building until it is complete.

Now, as the building nears completion and the first light catches on the pure white domes behind them, the temptation to steal a glance at the most beautiful monument the world has ever seen grows stronger. But beauty has a price and Humayun and Babur are about to learn its true cost.

The play is inspired by the gruesome legend that Shah Jahan, on completion of the Taj Mahal ordered the hands of the craftsmen and artisans who were involved in its creation to be cut off so they could never build a monument of equal beauty.

Director Jamie Lloyd has taken what is a fairly static two-hander and imbued it with a degree of dramatic texture. But this is a production which lacks punch and the writing is repetitive. The two guards begin chatting about what it must be like to be a guard in the imperial harem and sharing their ideas for inventions like an ‘aeroplat’, a flying contraption that might allow people to travel to the stars or visit the other countries. There’s humour and horror in equal measure and the two men talk in a slangy, sweary modern style, and end up comforting and cradling each other.

Soutra Gilmour’s sinister set comprises two trenches in the theatre floor, from which crimson liquid pools. Always happy to splash around the red stuff, he coats both characters in gore. We are, however, spared the sight of severed heads on the pyres, just their blood-streaked faces and the trauma in their eyes.

Lloyd draws engaging performances from Darren Kuppan as the fantastic Babur and Danny Ashok as the anxiously dutiful Humayun, both of whom display a fine sense of the characters chemistry.

Beneath the duo’s amusing banter much darker themes emerge, questions about the human price paid throughout history for the caprices of the mighty. I just wish it had has more substance.

Guards at the Taj

Playing a the Bush Theatre until 20 May 2017

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