Bush Theatre, London – until 2 May 2017
Everything Jamie Lloyd touches seems to turn to gold, the current Midas of the directing world. A long-standing partnership with designer Soutra Gilmour is certainly one of the reasons that his plays are so stylised, so specific, but Lloyd is also able to bring out the humanity in every character – their darker sides shine through as much as their honourable qualities. Guards At The Taj, by Pulitzer Prize nominee Rajiv Joseph, is a play packed with honour, a sense of duty and a desire to follow orders versus a desire to do what’s morally right. Joseph’s script burns with inner conflict and Lloyd is just the man to fan the flames.
Casting is as key as anything for this play, a duologue between two Imperial guards that have the honour of keeping watch whilst the Taj Mahal is being finished. No-one may see the beauty of Taj Mahal until she is completed except those that work on her – a royal decree by Emperor Shah Jahan. Humayun (Danny Ashok) takes his job very seriously, Babur (Darren Kuppan) is somewhat more aloof. No speaking; no blaspheming; no sedition – no problem for Humayun as he stands guard. Babur is a babbler, at risk of forty lashes, a shaved head, three days’ imprisonment, being sewn to the hide of a water buffalo, or any of other seemingly outlandish punishments for these infractions. The two are a real double act, a comic couple with an underlying fraternal bond. That is, until they are ordered to slice off the hands of all 20,000 that worked on Taj Mahal, so nothing in future can ever be created to outshine her beauty. That is not something to make light of, something that Babur cannot overlook, or mask as a royal order in order to assuage his conscience.
Gilmour strikes an imposing austere set with a simplistic realisation of angles and elevation, the wall made prominent by its sinister blackness as it cuts the space diagonally in half. The lower elevation contains pits that fill with water, blood and all other manner of gore as the casualties grow higher with each chop. Richard Howell’s lighting plays with direction and perspective, effortlessly combining with George Dennis’ sound, or lack thereof at times, to accent moments of pure bliss or unadulterated horror. The first gaze on the Taj Mahal is akin to an epiphany, a moment of the utmost joy and reverence as the audience bathes in her white glory. It’s a stark contrast to the blackout in the jail cell when Humayun (Ashok) has to do the unthinkable to his friend and brother Babur (Kuppan).
In many ways, Guards At The Taj is a three-character play. Joseph writes the Taj Mahal as if she is sentient, a figure of beauty and love and joy in the world that watches the other two lowly mortals from offstage – Lloyd avoids the trap to try and physicalise her, knowing that any corporeal depiction will fall short of the real thing. Yet still she observes from the wings, silently judging and informing upon events that occur in her presence. Both guards are affected by her perfection, but react in vehemently different ways. Babur (Kuppan) is overcome with her beauty and bereft that in chopping of the hands of her creators, he is effectively destroying beauty from ever existing again; his breakdown when realisation sinks in is all-consuming and overpowering. He chooses beauty over duty.
Humayun (Ashok) sees such a statuesque vision and feels pride in playing his role, conforming to the regime that created and envisioned the architecture – his grim determination to do what he describes as “a shit job” in order to achieve something more for himself is held in stark contrast to Babur at the end of the play. His breakdown is not over a philosophical realisation, but of a requirement to choose duty over his friend. Both actors are perfectly suited to their roles, two sides of a coin that builds up and breaks apart the subsequent relationship over the course of an ever-shifting series of platonic power struggles.
There are a number of moments in Guards At The Taj that shift the atmosphere, transform it from comic and affable, to gruesome yet fantastical, to one of personal horror and regret. The whole creative team, actors and production alike, tune themselves into these nuances and emphasise them to their fullest. Lloyd glues this production together, teasing out every subtle twist in Joseph’s words. The tension in his direction is ultimately proof that he is one of the best in the business, exciting and shocking yet never to the point of disbelief. This is a fitting show to open a revelatory new theatre building, a true landmark that “The Bush Is Back”.