[A couple of notes:
1) This play is engrossing and lyrical and powerfully written. What follows is at least seventy percent moral interrogation of a play and production which I wholeheartedly recommend.
2) Darren Kuppan looks so incredibly good with his shirt off. Best body I’ve seen onstage in London.]
Guards at the Taj is some of the loveliest writing about two people that cripple thousands of other human beings that I’ve ever encountered. The loveliness is the play’s great achievement and its curse in almost equal measure, and Jamie Lloyd’s production at the Bush solves the many storytelling and staging issues that the text throws up, but retains this gritty incongruity at its centre.
Two imperial guards in seventeenth-century India stand guard at the Taj Mahal on the day of its completion. Humayan (Danny Ashok) is the son of the “Chief Top Boss Man” of the Imperial guard. He stands up straight, silent as ordered, resisting being drawn into conversation. His friend, Babur (Darren Kuppan), turns up late with his sword in the wrong hand. So far, so buddy comedy. They are the lowest rank of guards, with the worst jobs: they are the only men forced to look away from the brilliant white Taj Mahal as it is unveiled. They gossip about their superiors, they repeat third-hand information, and they dream of being posted to the Imperial harem.
Then Humayan and Babur they get another bad job: they are ordered to chop off the hands of all the artisans who have just built the Taj Mahal. All 20,000 of them.
Here enter the staging issues that Rajiv Joseph’s text throws up. Behind Humayan and Babur’s post should be revealed the Taj Mahal in all its glory. Then we cut to a stage awash with the blood and smoke from the creating and cauterising of an almost unimaginable number of wounds. Soutra Gilmour’s two-level design allows for the blood to be present from the beginning of the play – a sewer-like, underground room is dimly lit below a walkway where the two men stand guard in the first scene. The Taj Mahal’s glorious whiteness is a near-blinding, cold, white light, coming up sharply behind the walkway with the dawn.
After this brightness, the men find themselves covered in the blood of their fellow citizens, in a stupor following completion of their incredible and violent task. The copper horror that intrudes in the play’s second scene literally seeps into the first in Gilmour’s design – eradicating the smash-cut textual cleanness of the scene change but effectively embodying the uneasy balance between sweetness and corruption that makes the play so unique.
Joseph examines the psychological effect that carrying out this order has on Babur and Humayan in somewhat romantic style: Babur is horrified that they have “killed Beauty”, which on the surface alludes to Shah Jahan’s commandment that nothing as beautiful as the Taj Mahal will ever be built again. As he is driven to near madness by his actions, though, we realise that with this utterance he is reaching for a seditious language that the imperial regime has almost quashed: to call the emperor’s decree evil, and to consider their actions complicit with that evil is almost impossible for him to formulate. This implication that authoritarian regimes degrade moral fortitude on a linguistic level is fascinating, and is brought out in the deftly drawn relationship between Ashok’s Humayan and Kuppan’s Babur. You see them physically move around the uncomfortable thoughts that they cannot vocalise.
Humayan and Babur are people who, in that classic formulation, are ‘just doing their job’ (or, with more emphasis, ‘just following orders’ ). It’s a useful project to humanise individuals directly responsible for these kinds of violence: Nick Gill’s Fiji Land engages in a similar project, focusing on the guards at a Guantanamo-style detention centre. Gill’s twist is that those they are entrusted to torture are potted plants – always onstage, always creating a distancing effect by re-framing acts of torture into nonsensical acts. In Guards at the Taj, however, the victims of an atrocity are only present in a wash of blood, which is carefully cleaned up throughout the second scene.
But however low-ranking the guards might be, I don’t care how hard it is to chop off 40,000 hands. I care about the 20,000 handless people. Babur can just about conceive of punching up, as he giddily imagines slitting the Emperor’s throat when the two of them are offered harem duty. But he can’t conceive of reaching down.
And this is why the witty, brotherly romanticism that I really admire and enjoy in the text of this play is nevertheless an issue: Guards at the Taj is structured in such a way that you care about its two characters and their relationship. It continues to romanticise the two of them, even as their relationship is challenged by psychological damage and betrayal. The events of the play are legendary – Shah Jahan made no such order – but the domestic atrocity is real to the world of the play. It is the equivalent of being confronted with a sweet and engaging relationship between two security officers at Chicago Department of Aviation following the United Airlines debacle earlier this month. Or something much more Godwin’s Law.
Lloyd’s production does well to resist some of the text’s clear affection for its characters, but Babur’s flights of fancy, his inventions and the dreamlike ending of the play leave the piece feeling as groundless as its historical sources, despite the visceral opening of its blood-drenched second scene.
Guards at the Taj is at the Bush Theatre until May 20th. For more details, click here.