Bush Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
“Was it fucked up? Yes, it was. But I don’t have to feel terrible about it.”
Opening up the newly-refurbished Bush Theatre is Rajiv Joseph‘s 2015 play Guards at the Taj. Allocated seating and dynamic pricing have been introduced, accessibility addressed and terraces built, we’ve come a long way from the intimate room above a pub that was its original home. And it’s a fascinating piece of writing to go with, an unexpected move perhaps but enjoyable nonetheless.
Inspired by the legend, for which there is no factual basis, that seventeenth century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered that the hands of all the craftsmen who were involved in the construction of the Taj Mahal should be cut off. He commissioned the mausoleum for his favourite wife and the mythos behind the story is that he wanted to ensure that they could never build anything of equal beauty.
Joseph’s play puts us in the shoes of Babur and Humayun, two old pals who have been employed to protect the building site, with their backs turned to it lest their eyes should fall on its majestic beauty natch. Their friendship means a job that could otherwise have been dull is filled with amusing banter but as their responsibilities suddenly become more gruesome, the tone darkens considerably.
You’d be hard-pressed to recognise Guards at the Taj as a Jamie Lloyd production, altogether on a different scale from the work he has been producing elsewhere recently, and it’s all the better for it. Soutra Gilmour’s design reveals its horrible depths slowly but Richard Howell’s lighting is unflashy and Lydia Crimp’s costumes unshowy, a real simplicity at work that allows the shift into traumatic gore to hit even harder.
Darren Kuppan’s Babur and Danny Ashok’s Humayan connect beautifully with an easy charm, carrying us easily through the dryer, earlier scenes and then find moments of eloquent insight as they deal with the ramifications of what they’ve been forced to do and the consequences of such power. An intriguing start to a new regime.