Only a few weeks ago, the Bush Theatre emerged from its
year-long renovation, boasting a revamped auditorium and studio space, alongside
open-air decking for those all-important post-show drinks. Given the space's
lavish overhaul, what's perhaps most remarkable about
As full of heart as it is needless cruelty, the Bush has produced a piece of vital, vital theatre.
As you'd expect in a play about two men standing guard until dawn, the staging and movement is minimal – but used to great effect when the time calls for it. Sound design is equally sparing, preferring to let silence do its work, using only the briefest glimpses of birdsong or airplane engines (yes, you read that right) to startle you to attention.
There are jokes a-plenty, aptly handled by Four Lions actor Danny Ashok as endearing jobsworth Humayun – who lists the rules and restrictions on his life the way teens list their favourite songs – and Darren Kuppan as his close friend and free-thinker Babur, full of predictions and hopes for the future. The actors are a delight to watch and share an envious rapport, conveying years of affection and frustration at each other with little more than a shrug or a tilt of the head. But the play is shockingly dark – all the more disturbing for the ring of truth surrounding the consequences of the then-Emperor's strict royal decrees. This is a detailed picture of 1648 Agra, India, and Joseph deserves high praise for ensuring the setting is far more than mere historical dressing.
Even the most frivolous lines carry a serious weight, and what might have become aimless quipping in lesser hands is here a tense battle for expression, laughter, and morals in a system that won't grant them to you. Yet with the easy way the cast shrug off changes in scene or tone, even difficult-to-watch sections are always profoundly watchable.
Two low-ranking characters trading witticisms and philosophies are hardly a new sight for the stage; but while Humayun and Babur question the nature of aesthetics, coated in the blood of their colleagues and showing that the grand questions in life can't be divorced from its harsh reality, there's no question that Guards at the Taj carries it off with aplomb. As full of heart as it is needless cruelty, the Bush has produced a piece of vital, vital theatre.