Guards at the Taj

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 Guards at the Taj is the restraint it shows in telling you its gripping story, of two soldiers guarding the south side of a nearly-completed Taj Mahal, themselves restrained by royal order not to turn and look at the most beautiful building in the world.

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.

Reviews by Henry St Leger

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The Blurb

“If we hadn’t done our jobs tonight, we’d be hanging by our necks in the royal courtyard getting our eyes pecked out by the royal crows. So excuse me if I don’t wallow in some misbegotten guilt all night. Was it fucked up? Yes, it was. But I don’t have to feel terrible about it.”

Jamie Lloyd directs the European premiere of this wickedly funny award-winning play from Pulitzer Prize nominee Rajiv Joseph.

It’s 1648. Agra, India. Imperial guards and best mates Humayun and Babur keep watch as the final touches are put to the mighty Taj Mahal behind them. The emperor has decreed that no one, except the masons, labourers and slaves who exist within those walls, 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.

Guards at the Taj takes as its starting point an enduring legend and prompts contemporary audiences to revisit questions about art and privilege. The play premiered at the Atlantic Theatre 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).