What a canny choice of play to celebrate the Bush’s revitalization of their hundred-year-old library venue. Theatre’s new gateway to the West opens with a piece about the jewel of Mughal architecture in the East. The happy difference here is that the smaller of these buildings didn’t involve the bloodshed of its builders (one hopes, at least). Because if you type “Did Shah Jahan…” into a search engine, the first thing to pop up will be “…cut off the hands of his workers?” Follow those links on the Taj Mahal and you’ll find the usual clash of opinions debating the origins of the legend. It doesn’t matter. What makes Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj such a brilliant concept is not its historical accuracy, but the fact that the folklore itself exists. It is one of many fables surrounding master-craftsmanship, from the imprisonment of Daedalus to shipyard worker skeletons found in the double-hull of the Great Eastern. It is a myth of sacrifice in exchange for beauty, the ghost of the little man that haunts the great works of the mighty.
Agra, India, 1648, and best friends Humayun and Babur guard the Taj Mahal. By royal decree no one but the masons, labourers and slaves may look upon the Shah’s great structure until it is complete. This curious diktat becomes a metaphor for Plato’s cave, humanity observing the shadows on the wall cast by the fires of a world unimaginable to them. Soutra Gilmour’s simple yet intriguing set is sharp diagonals, a timeless wall edging blood-sluiced ditches. Richard Howell’s lighting is gloomily engaging, and rapturous when conjuring a half-remembered jungle or a sky full of pink-purple birds. George Dennis’ sound design deftly blends crickets and red-breasted jibjabs with stirring compositions that feel both ancient and modern. It is he who elicits the big gasps with the brutal scrape of a hand being taken off.
Hands are a running theme here: hands that bear swords, hands that stack stones, hands that command and hands that embrace. Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan bring the two guards to life with rich chemistry and faultless timing. Ashok’s Humayun, stoically guarding their wall from the moment the house opens, is a bombastic stickler for rules and regulations, a dreamy-eyed monarchist who seems half-aroused when he talks about duty. Kuppan’s Babur, tardy and bawdy, is the joker, the rebel (albeit one with a soft heart: “I apologise to a chicken before I snap its neck”). Humayun goes gooey whenever he thinks about their king, “His Most Supreme Benevolence Emperor Shah Jahan”, whereas Babur is much more interested in the Taj Mahal’s architect: Ustad Isa.
It is here that director Jamie Lloyd takes us to the heart of the play’s exponentially rewarding concept – the battle for the ownership of beauty. To whom does the Taj Mahal belong: to the architect who envisioned it? The labourers who built it? Or to the king who imported the Marble from China, the Herringbone from Iraq, the 700 tons of Jasper from Uzbekistan? The plot propels when Humayun reveals to Babur that the Shah has decreed that “nothing so beautiful as Tajmahal shall ever be built again.” It is these two lovably hapless characters who end up enforcing this decree – by lopping off the hands of the 20,000 men who built it. The terror of the time, offset by the zippy dialogue, is palpable: forty lashes for ‘Mild Sedition’ all the way to ‘Death by Elephant’ for treason. As the first light rises on the completed Taj Mahal, Babur and Humayun’s friendship shifts in moving and ultimately tragic ways. For as much as their bond is steeped in love, this historic moment threatens to crush them both.
Joseph’s text is modern, quickfire, endlessly imaginative – full of the flights of verbal fancy that favourably compare to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We see their boyish longing to be assigned to the Imperial Harem, and equally their dread at being sent to patrol Kashmir (historical resonance hits home again and again). There are discussions of wild inventions: Babur’s “Allah-aero-platforma-al-Agra-Babura…Or for short…Aeroplat.” and Humayun’s ‘transportable hole.’ These daydreams are foreboding in their innocence, and lead to Babur’s crippling realisation that, in pursuit of the duty that Humayun values so much, they may have ‘killed beauty’.
For all the production’s wonder, the finale’s weightier scenes feel slightly cushioned. It could be that the relatively short and comical script, along with the natural limitations of a two-hander, inhibits our ability to invest more deeply in their world. But as for widening our horizons while at the same time rooting us in our seats, this production triumphs. Artistic Director Madani Younishas indeed brought to life ‘a vision for a theatre that reflects the diversity and vibrancy of London today’, including a fantastic programme Project 2036, offering BAME and refugee artists £10k bursaries. This is the future, and it already feels dynamically invested in our past.