Bush Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
Humayun and Babur have known each other since they were boys. Now the newest of emperor Shah Jahan’s imperial guards in Agra, the best friends work side-by-side on the night shift. Today is different, though. The first light of dawn will reveal the completed Taj Mahal, previously hidden from anyone other than its makers. Fit to burst with excitement, the two don’t know that the day to come will irrevocably change them as they fall prey to the giant cogs of the imperial machine.
Epitomising opposing political viewpoints, the war between practical and aesthetic, emotional versus intellectual, and the disparity between social classes, the two characters each represent huge forces clashing within a coming-of-age story and a myth of the Taj’s history. The inevitable conflict that arises out of an extreme and gratuitous order from their superiors is the catastrophic collision of ideologies, and utterly devastating to behold within the tiny forms of individual, fragile men. Though they represent big ideas, writer Rajiv Joseph endows them with enough detail to make them believable. There is plenty of brotherly banter that adds levity and realness; without it, the script would be pointlessly abstract and lack shape.
Considering all that the lads represent, the play should feel like it packs in too much – but it doesn’t. Once the slower beginning gathers momentum, the narrative progression is unstoppable and remarkably uncluttered despite its multi-faceted symbolism. The straightforward events that unfold, pitting friends against each other, is a horrifying display of corrupted power exploiting and discarding the serving classes. It’s a story that despite its firm placement in 1648, echoes benefit cuts, treatment of veterans with PTSD, and erasure of today’s most vulnerable people in the name of political vanity.
Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan’s performances form effective foils to each other, but Soutra Gilmour’s set and Richard Howell’s lighting is the most immediately striking element. Strong lines and angles create a cold, industrial atmosphere as unforgiving as the societal structures the young men are prey to. Though unseen, it’s a good juxtaposition to the glimmering, detailed curves of the Taj.
There’s little to fault with Guards at the Taj. The beginning couple of scenes could be lightly trimmed, but the devastation the story wreaks and the humanity on show dwarfs any small faults in the script’s structure. It’s positively tragic in the Greek sense, but within a story that feels immediate and alive. Though written before the current US and UK administration, the themes within are cannily foretell the impact of government policy on the common man. It’s a powerful social commentary on personal values within a riveting story.