REVIEW: Guards at the Taj (Bush Theatre) ★★★★

Guards at the Taj (Bush Theatre)

The Bush Theatre in West London has reopened after a year-long major redevelopment by architects Haworth Tompkins that amounted to £4.3 million. The makeover entails a new studio space and attic rehearsal room along with a new entrance, front-of-house area and a sunny garden terrace. Intriguingly enough, the Bush reopens with a play about one of the architectural marvels – the Taj Mahal. Rajiv Joseph‘s play Guards at the Taj premiered at the Atlantic Theater in New York to great acclaim in 2015 and is the recipient of both the Obie Award for Best New American Play and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play (2016).

The place is Agra, Hindustan. The year is 1648. The Taj Mahal is almost finished. A monument to the Mughal emperor’s late wife, it took 20,000 men 20 years to build this architectural wonder. Legend has it that the emperor ordered workers’ hands to be cut off after the completion of their work to prevent that anything so beautiful will ever be built again. Rajiv Joseph’s play builds on this legend to discuss ideas about art and privilege.

Two imperial guards are standing with their backs to the almost finished Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan has decreed that nobody, apart from the workers who live within the walls, may look at the building until it is complete. Babur is tempted to catch a glimpse at the most beautiful monument in the world but Humayun cannot be persuaded – at first. As Babur and Humayun guard the Taj, they discuss various subjects. Babur is a dreamer. He believes that the human quest for knowledge is boundless and imagines flying machines that will transport people through the skies. He also dreams of getting a promotion and being transferred to the harem. Humayun lives by the book and believes in conformity and obedience. Still breaking the rules this one time is too tempting and they both look at the Taj Mahal as the sun rises on the day of its unveiling. Their swords fall to the floor and they hold hands. Yet this magical moment is not going to last.

Both guards are at the bottom rung of the ladder, which is why they are chosen to take care of 40,000 amputations with Babur chopping and Humayun cauterising. After mutilating 20,000 men, Humayun is unable to let go of the sword and Humayun is blind from the smoke. They take care of each other and clean themselves up but their lives have changed forever. There is no beauty in the world that can outweigh the horror of what they have done.

Rajiv Joseph has turned the legend into a modern day fable about equality and art. We are now experiencing a new Mughal era with the one per cent calling the shots. Danny Ashok‘s Humayun is one of the obedient sheep and therefore complicit in the state of the world. Darren Kuppan‘s Babur is a dreamer whose ideals are destroyed by the task he is forced to perform. Wrecked by guilt, he is unable to live with himself any more.

Jamie Lloyd‘s compelling production offers moments of lightness with the two friends bickering over trivial matters, discussing philosophical questions and remembering past experiences. The initial humour makes the horror that is to come appear even darker. Soutra Gilmour‘s design takes us into a gory hell as the two guards slip in pools of blood, one blind, one unable to unclasp his hands from the sword with which he did the bloody deed.

Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Marc Brenner

Guards at the Taj is playing at the Bush Theatre until 20 May 2017