Friday, 14 April 2017

Review Guards At The Taj

A tale of 17th century young soldiers experiencing comradeship and peril guarding a shining jewel of India architecture exposes for Francis Beckett something about our times.  

Guards At The Taj 
by Rajiv Joseph

If You Seek A Monument, Look Around

The fine new £4.3 million theatre space the Bush now has at its disposal is perfectly suited to this stark, simple two hander by American playwright Rajiv Joseph about two soldiers assigned to guard the Taj Mahal while it is being built, and to make sure no one sneaks a look at it.

After its construction in 1643, there is a story that the emperor Shah Jahan had the architect killed and cut off the hands of all 20,000 construction workers, so that nothing of comparable beauty could ever be built again.

Most historians seem to think it’s not true, but it’s believable of an absolute ruler who flung all the resources of his country into a monument for his favourite wife, and it makes a marvellous premise for this play.

For me, the great thing about this 80-minute drama is that the two young men, who must keep their backs to the building they guard and never look at it, on pain of death; who are subject to brutal and arbitrary discipline, and who serve a brutal and arbitrary emperor, and who are eventually assigned to cut off the hands of the workers, are just two ordinary young men.

Humayun and Babur are friends, who care about each other, one more rebellious and adventurous than the other, more inclined to believe that those in charge know best.  They have moments of black, unintended humour:

“Wait, wait, wait. He’s going to cut 20,000 hands off?”


The theatre space fits the play like a glove, with a little help from designer Soutra Gilmour and director Jamie Lloyd who build the oppressive environment in which the two young men laugh - and fear.

But this is a play which depends crucially on the two actors, and it is blessed with brilliant performances, sensitive and sure-footed, from Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan.

The chemistry between them is just right, and whatever terrible things either of them do, we care what happens to them, from the moment we meet the two young men to the moment they lose each other.

They may be in India in the 17th century, but they could be from Wandsworth this April.

As definite a green light as I’ve ever awarded.

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