Bush Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
Revamped to the tune of £4.3million by those troubadours of theatre architecture, Haworth Tompkins (the Young Vic, the Royal Court, the Donmar and the Almeida are just some of their recent judicious face-lifting credits), the Bush Theatre kicks off its new life with a design befitting its new enlarged status.
Soutra Gilmour’s stunning Taj Mahal parapet wall stretches into the far distance creating a Stygian gloom with a channelled, divided stage floor that, it’s true, caught one unfortunate spectator completely unaware. Little did he know that the cracked surface he tripped into would later become an execution channel, awash in the blood of 20,000 hands chopped off by guards following the order of their illustrious Emperor.
Rajiv Joseph’s pregnant Obie-award winner poses a number of issues. Taking a well-worn myth surrounding the building of one of the most historic buildings in the world, – namely, to prevent anything as beautiful being built again, the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan ordered the hands of those involved, the construction workers, the architects and designers be cut off – Joseph focuses on the guards ordered to carry out the mutilations.
Like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Guards at the Raj is a tale of two subsidiary characters transplanted to centre stage – a two-hander whose zippy, terse dialogue in Jamie Lloyd’s production, almost but not quite, covers up what must rate as one of the most theatrically arresting images of the year – Danny Ashok’s Humayun rising up from one of the channels, his face covered in blood, a man physically and metaphorically blinded by duty.
A truly shocking moment, you can hear the collective intake of breath. But what follows grows even darker. Joseph is intent – and by golly succeeds – in developing not only this symbiotic relationship between the two guards – Ashok’s fiercely diligent loyalist with Darren Kuppan’s more sensitive Babur but through them explores not just friendship but the nature of duty, the role of the imagination, conscience and, by the by, the potential for barbarity by those `following orders’.
Lloyd, as is his wont, tends to take things a little too much at a rush and fails to entirely visualise the fantabulous aspects of Joseph’s script whilst adding a homoerotic touch in the vision of Babur in Humayun’s conscience-stricken memory..
But in all other aspects, not least the performances of Ashok and Kuppan, this is a tale to make your hair stand on end. Ashok and Kuppan are astounding, lithe, gullible and trapped by hierarchy. If ever there was a play that spoke of the common man’s plight and servitude, this, miraculously, through metaphor, is it.