I have never seen the 17th century Taj Mahal but Google images shows a stunning white edifice, a lavish and ornate mausoleum built for bereaved maharajah, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Despite a £4.3m rebuild at London’s Bush Theatre (and very nice it looks too) director Jamie Lloyd can’t quite muster anything like the grandiose Indian palace for the post-refit opening production at the venue, Guards at the Taj.
There’s not a turret or dome to be seen. In fact, the rough and ready stage, backed by raw brickwork, and fronted by two deep troughs that claimed their first victim when I saw an audience member topple in, looks like the Taj is still a work in progress.
But it’s amazing what you can do with a few lights and sound effects, a puff of smoke and lot of imagination.
Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, a story about love and the price of beauty, is an interesting choice for Bush artistic director Madani Younis to programme for the venue’s reopening production and possibly reflects his love for his own project that is dear to his heart.
The Bush, once a former pub theatre and now housed in a former library, has had a super face-lift with a shiny new bar, gender neutral toilets and improved front and back-stage facilities.
Legend has it that, on completion, Shah Jahan ordered that his 20,000 artisan workers, including its architect, had their hands cut off so that they could never build anything finer than his wondrous Taj Mahal. There must have been a few sub-contractors in Shepherd’s Bush sweating over Younis’ reaction post-theatre revamp.
Joseph’s story is a work of fiction. More than that, it’s a gruesome, blood-soaked, horror story, seen through the eyes of a pair of young imperial guards who find themselves at the heart of its savagery.
It’s 1648, on the night before the Taj Mahal is finally revealed after a 16 year build. Lowly guards Babur and Humayun (Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok), are, as ordered, facing away from the building, listening to the night-time screech of birds and looking up at the stars.
Babur dreams of guarding the royal harem and can’t stop chatting while Humayun takes his posting seriously and tries to shut him up.
Kuppan and Ashok make an engaging double act but they’re let down by weak dialogue. The comedy occasionally evokes a mild grimace but nothing more.
But the lightness of tone changes abruptly when the two men later emerge from the onstage troughs, drenched in blood, after being given the horrific job of dispatching 40,000 hands.
Babur becomes a changed man, deeply traumatised by what he has been ordered to do, convinced that he has destroyed beauty forever, and his relationship with Humayun is irretrievably altered.
One particular scene is profoundly moving when, overwhelmed by emotion, Babur, breaks down and is tenderly cared for by his best friend.
This two-hander holds your attention and packs a lot into its 80 minutes. There are moments when it is brutally grim but Babur’s ramblings, his imaginative inventions and his clear love of life, save the day. However, it really needs more light to counteract the dark.
Guards at the Taj runs at the Bush Theatre until May 20.
Guards at the Taj
Guards at the Taj, at London’s Bush Theatre, holds your attention but its weak humour is overwhelmed by moments of profound darkness.