THEATRE REVIEW: Guards At The Taj, Bush Theatre

playing until 20 May

As the Bush Theatre reopens its doors after a year-long £4 million redevelopment, Jamie Lloyd relaunches the main house with his European premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Guards At The Taj, itself toying with the price of a beautiful building. Lloyd’s trademark blend of richness and gore comes to the fore in this intense burst of a story, which places human fragility alongside the majesty of great architecture.

Guards-at-the-Taj 7 (c) Mark Brenner
Darren Kuppan (Babur) and Danny Ashok (Humayun)

The play opens with a conversation between two imperial guards who aren’t allowed to be talking, about one of the most beautiful sights in the world that they aren’t allowed to look at. The year is 1648 and it’s the newly-built Taj Mahal. Friends and soldiers Humayun (restrained, orderly) and Babur (indiscreet, spontaneous) have been put on the dawn watch – they’re at the bottom of the army ladder and have drawn the short straw which, as will become apparent, is the usual way of things. Their curiosity gives way to awe, gives way to horror, as Joseph follows through on the legend of the Taj Mahal’s workers – 20,000 of whom (according to folklore) had their hands chopped off on the orders of Emperor Shah Jahan, so nothing so beautiful could ever be built again.

The opening comic patter of Humayun and Babur lulls us into false serenity, before rivers of blood emerge and the guards’ faces are stained with gruesome scarlet. The visuals are macabre, but the performances of Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan feel completely natural and contemporary. Their bickering banter is delivered with a light touch, making the tenderness that follows all the more heart-wrenching. As Humuyan washes and strips the traumatised Babur, the trembling gentleness of his actions generates pathos that takes us by surprise. As Babur (Kuppan) struggles with weighty questions of beauty and guilt, Humayun (Ashok) desperately urges his friend to retain a grip on reality, unintentionally opening a door to even more horrors.

Guards-at-the-Taj Darren Kuppan (c) Mark Brenner
Darren Kuppan (c) Mark Brenner

Soutra Gilmour’s design (and Richard Howell’s lighting design) repeatedly transforms the show throughout its episodic structure, as its static opening gives way to lush jungle or grisly bloodbath. It’s a striking piece in every element, but something of an oddity in the way it swings between banter, philosophy and hammer horror. It loses its way slightly in the closing scenes, sacrificing the chance of a startling cliffhanger for a rather sentimental flashback. But it’s a small niggle. This is a strong and arresting reopener for the Bush, a compelling two-hander that takes a shrewd look at the place of individuals in a regime of horror.

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