An impressive revitalisation of a late Victorian building, has transformed an old library into a place of culture, where library, café and the Bush Theatre happily rub shoulders, reaping the benefits of the £4.3 million cost refurbishment. This is a handsome venue for Rajiv Joseph 2015’s play Guards of the Taj, which kicks open the new doors to this location.
The year 1648 and the location is Agra. The Taj Mahal, one of the sublime wonders of the world, is nearing completion. The Imperial Guards, Humayun and Babur, engagingly performed by Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan, are on ‘Dawn Watch’ duty.
These guards must abide by certain strict laws that rob them from any degree of freedom – they must face away from the Taj, never look at it, adhere to a ‘Sacred of the Mughal Imperial Guard’ order ‘Never Speak’ and hold their swords upright at all time when on duty. In short, they are subjected to total control from above. A breach of any of these orders is considered blasphemy and leads to serious consequences. A backdrop that resonates with the reality today in some countries and among certain groups empowered by weapons and ideology.
The two guards are old buddies with polarised attitude and views. Babur, consistently well drawn by Darren Kuppan, is filled with voracious inquisitiveness; he charmingly blabbers about ideas that feed his creative imagination. He also fantasies about guarding the Harem. He is the rebel in guards uniform. Humayun, endeavours to toe the official line insisting initially on silence and abiding by the rules. Babur refers to the ruler as ‘ Shah Jahan’, Humayun mentions his name with awe ‘His Most Sovereign Enlightened One’. Humayun’s father is a senior official and that upbringing of obedience and fear dominates his thoughts and actions. Danny Ashok’s Humayun, the obedient yet petrified and confused individual, who cannot contemplate breaking the rules, is also well enacted, exposing the crushed individual who acquiesces to oppression.
The Taj Mahal is surrounded by folktales some of which associate its creation with brutal deeds of the Emperor Shah Jahan, the Mugal Emperor who is credited with having re-asserted the rigour of Sharia laws. This characterisation is a poignant metaphor.
Rajiv Joseph’s play draws on the myth of a decree to have the hands of the 20,000 craftsmen involved in the building project, cut off, to ensure they would not be able to replicate their work. Our guards have been told to carry out the order.
The agony and the emotional turmoil of the bloody deed impact the two differently. Babur fantasises ways to assassinate the Emperor.
The austere set designed by Soutra Gilmour creates two levels, an elevated parapet with two gullies at its foot from where our guards reappear in Scene 2, drenched in blood. Humayun, unable to see and Babur unable to unclasp his hands from the dagger used to cut off thousands of hands.
Ironically Babur helps Humayun wash the blood from his face and clear his eye. The brutal act has left Humayun hysterically fearful but triggered rebellious thoughts in Babur. The end result is rather depressing and mirrors events in countries subjected to brutal dictators.
This is an interesting and thought-provoking play, yet like a culinary dish, it is lacking some ingredients to make it special, possibly more humour, black or otherwise, justify awarding the 80 minutes performance, with no interval, a four or five stars.