The refurbished Bush Theatre re-opens in a blaze of glory with Jamie Lloyd’s stunning and meticulous production of Rajiv Joseph’s award-winning Guards At The Taj, a truly vibrant and vital piece of writing. With faultless performances from Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan, the titular Guards, this an absorbing and compelling theatrical experience which reminds audiences about the thrill of new writing and the brilliance of Lloyd’s skill as a director.
It’s got to be a terrible thing. Spend sixteen years building Tajmahal…and then not to be able to build anything again. Chop off these hands…so that nothing so beautiful as Tajmahal shall ever be built again. The Emperor is a serious man, bhai. Nothing so beautiful ever built again…And if nothing so beautiful is ever built again, that means that Beauty itself is dying. Right now, already, it’s dying. It means that one day, it will be gone altogether.
The Taj Mahal is one of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world, no question. Like many of the world’s man-made miracles, behind the beauty lies much sacrifice, as well as inspirational vision, and dizzying creativity. Set in 1648, in Agra, India, just as the Taj Mahal is unveiled to an awestruck world, Rajiv Joseph’s play Guards At The Taj takes a long, hard, and fascinating look at questions of duty, honour, art, wealth, legacy and love. Over 80 minutes, every emotion from disgust to exhilaration is experienced, both by the Guards on duty, and the audience spellbound by their story.
Great writing both intrigues and fascinates, opens closed doors and lets the light play over what lies behind the door. This can be achieved whether the narrative is truth, based on truth, or entirely true. Joseph utilises a legend about Shah Jahan as the basis for Guards At The Taj – that he ordered that all those who worked on the building of his pride and joy should have their hands amputated so that they could never work on a better building. It is a horrifying notion, but one which seems easy to believe.
The creative world is full of examples where those who do the work, make the visions come true, are dismissed, ignored, or discarded by those who make the money, have the idea, take the credit, reap the benefits. Indeed, you only have to look at the poor wages paid to West End performers whose hard work ensures big shows make money for a modern example; sure no appendages are chopped off, but nor are wounds cauterised. As the divide between the rich and the working poor expands and entrenches, the potential for capricious sacrifice being forced upon those who are not rich increases exponentially.
So Joseph’s play, although set nearly 400 years ago, speaks directly to our own time, our own values, our own relationship with duty, friendship and art. With savage delicacy and delicate savagery, Joseph creates a different time and place, but tells a modern tale, full of darkness and beauty, a roller coaster of arresting dilemmas, exuberant folly and razor-sharp insight.
Jamie Lloyd’s European premiere production of Guards At The Taj, now playing at the Bush Theatre is exactly the kind of visceral and thrilling piece of theatre for which he has become well known. The Bush Theatre has undergone its own transformation, and although it is not of Taj Mahal proportions, the result is a very pleasing building, with roomy foyers, a balcony, and two performance spaces. Within that space, Lloyd ignites theatrical dynamite.
The new main auditorium is a flexible space but little more is sure about it, although acoustics seem infinitely better than before. Soutra Gilmour has transformed the acting space: there is a lot of concrete – walls, deep trenches, stairs – which deadens the environment appropriately.
The lonely enervating life of a watchful Guard resonates from the bland, grey surfaces, and when blood or water flows in the trenches, the effect is quite electric. Projections and clever lighting (Richard Howell) accentuate quieter, even noisier, moments and, quite wisely, there is no attempt to create a view of the Taj Mahal itself.
The wonder about the actual beauty of the actual Taj Mahal is completely conveyed by the language Joseph utilises, and by the skill of the two quite excellent actors who speak it. Danny Ashok (Humayun) and Darren Kuppan (Babar) give faultless, splendidly-detailed performances which bring their characters to sparkling life and cause emotions to race as they go through their days as lowly members of the King’s inner retinue.
This is a play best seen without any detailed idea of the plot. There is a lot of talking, which beguiles and intrigues in its own way, but there are several whirlwind changes of tempi and direction which, if they come without notice, are staggeringly effective. Just expect blood, gore and tender friendship, as well as betrayal and bemusement, and you will be well enough prepared.
Ashok begins proceedings, standing silently on guard, his back to the near complete Taj Mahal. He is forbidden to look upon it until it is officially declared open on pain of penalties which might include death by Elephant dragging or being sewn inside the hide of a Water Buffalo and left in the sun for seven days. He is the son of the man who is Chief Top Boss Man of the King’s Imperial Guard and the scars of that relationship flicker across his face and cause his voice to tremble with an irregularity that runs true and signifies depth.
For his part, Kuppan plays the extremes, larrikan, warrior, anarchist, and he does this with a puppy-like glee which is as realistic as it is playful. His Babur thinks deeply, where Ashok’s doesn’t; Babur says anything he wants, fearless of the consequences, where Ashok says what he thinks he can, fearful of otherwise being overheard.
They might be in a pod of kinds, but few peas could be any less alike. And yet, the differences between them are what unite them as much as their shared history. Brothers in word and deed, if not by blood. The relationship they paint is simple, strong, and achingly tender. Acting at its most honest, most complex, most affecting.
This is an extraordinary production of a wonderful play. Lloyd once again demonstrates why the Donmar made a terrible mistake when Michael Grandage’s successor was appointed. It will make you think about the real price that comes with great art, great beauty. It will make you reassess Beauty itself.
Haunting, electrifying, magnificent. Unmissable. Truly unmissable.