Last time I hit the Bush Theatre was back in 2015. (I know, bad!) I recall the reception area being cosy, yet in some need of an update, pronto. Nevertheless, the theatrical space was a decent one. It was a good enough space for new writing and stage worthy performances, even if they were brand new and off the fringe. I had seen tweets about #GuardsattheTaj on my twitter feed and many positive reviews had been released, though I never read them in depth. When I spoke to my colleagues at work about Bush Theatre, some of them already knew that it been newly developed.
To my surprise, it had been completely revamped. A new signpost, a brand new cafe, a welcoming reception with seats outside for those sunny days. In fact, it was a place for people to chill even if they weren’t there for the theatre.
As far as theatre engagement goes, the cafe, named ‘The Library Bar‘, was quite an adventure for those seeking caffeine fuel and possibly, or unintentionally, coming across the theatre posters and seeing what was currently showing. A Saturday morning latte at The Library may mean a curious visit to the Bush in the evening and seeing the wonders of the newly renovated theatre.
On this occasion being ‘massively’ late, I met a group of theatre bloggers who I hadn’t met before, some just as inquisitive and excited about theatre blogging as I was. It was the first time I had seen a play written by American playwright and 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Rajiv Joseph, or ever heard of The Guards at the Taj.
In the play, two imperial guards stand before the Taj Mahal, but face away from it. The only people allowed to lay their eyes on the Taj are the labourers and architects who designed and created it. Two best friends Humayun (Danny Ashok) and Babur (Darren Kuppan) spend years together standing in the same place watching the sun rise without turning around, that is until the day the Taj is complete. The relevance of the play to Bush Theatre’s newly renovated space becomes clear.
Designer Soutra Gilmour creates an interesting sparse area for the stage. One for both guards to stand on, where both Ashok and Kuppan are raised from the audience’s viewpoint, and the lower ground level with two shallow stairs positioned in different directions from one another, filled with blood. Within 80 minutes, without an interval, you watch comedy dialogue quickly change to regret, shame and guilt.
Without giving away any spoilers, both guards are obliged to commit an act that deeply affects Babur, more so than Humayan, but this is where the writing becomes interesting. Not only does the audience begin to realise the distinguishing features of the guards and how different their personalities are, they also become engrossed in some intriguing conversations and slightly metaphysical dialogue on morality, duty, loyalty, and beauty. Was what they did morally right? Does friendship come before duty? What is beauty? Or is there anything more beautiful than the Taj Mahal? Stop, hold on, that’s sacrilege!
The acting was the the stuff of stars in the making. Danny Ashok gave Humayun a sense of purpose – to commit to his obligations and not question them. He was strong on his feet and quick witted with the script. While Darren Kuppan’s Babur was easier to empathise with, just because Babur was more open about his feelings. Coming up with the easy jokes in the beginning of the play Kuppan’s Babur is likeable and almost childlike. His innocence is magnified, as such, in touching scenes sought half way through the play where Kuppan portrays Babur’s character as vulnerable and fallen victim of a tense situation. This is where we see the ab-tastic show, too!
Director Jamie Lloyd has produced a holistic piece joined together by great performers, evocative atmosphere and minimal visuals. With Richard Howell’s moody lights, the stage was set to the right tones for what would seem like a postcard picture of the Taj Mahal, hues of pink, blue and red abound. I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal, but I’ve got an idea of what it would have been like for a 17th century imperial guard.