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A CurtainUp London Review
Guards at the Taj
"If we hadn't done our jobs tonight, we'd be hanging by our necks in the royal courtyard getting our eyes pecked out by the royal crows. So excuse me if I don't wallow in some misbegotten guilt all night."— Humayun
Guards at the Taj
Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan (Photo: Marc Brenner)
Rajiv Joseph's play about two guards who are forbidden to look at the Taj Mahal whilst it is being constructed is billed as a comedy. The Taj Mahal is one of the wonders of the more recent world and arguments go on today in academic circles as to whether it was really intended to be a tomb and was it built on the site of an earlier Hindu temple?

One of the myths, or legends if you prefer the more romantic connotation, about the construction of the Taj Mahal was that the emperor Shah Jahan, who ordered its construction as a tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, did not want any building to equal or excel it, so he ordered the hands amputated of the 20,000 craftsman employed on its building and decoration. It is also said that the emperor ordered the death of the Persian architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. It is the relationship between cruelty and art which is explored in Rajiv Joseph's award winning play.

There is a personality contrast between the two men. Humayun (Danny Ashok) is like a chief school prefect, unquestioning and obedient, anxious not to disrupt the authorities and to conform. Babur (Darren Kuppan) on the other hand flies off with creativity and fantasies picturing a palaquin that might fly and all kinds of inventions not heard of in the mid seventeenth century.

Although these two guards are hoping they might eventually qualify for harem duty where the imperial women allegedly wander around scantily dressed, they do not realise that, as the lowest in the pecking order, they will have the thankless task of disabling the twenty thousand artisans. Jamie Lloyd does not shy away from the gore as he has Babur cutting off forty thousand hands and Humayun cauterising the same number of arm stumps and emerging from the underground slaughterhouse of Soutra Gilmour's compartmentalised bloody set.

Each feat of construction whether it is great bridges or towers or tunnels under the ocean has hazardous conditions for the workforce but are these human sacrifices worth the end result? Where I disagree with the promoters of the play is in finding the macabre humour funny. I sat in shock at the bloody deeds described by men their faces covered in blood while around me people tittered. Maybe they experience no suspension of disbelief?

Where I did buy into Rajiv Joseph's play was when the two men break the rule and turn to look at the wondrous white domed building for the first time. Inside the white marble was decorated with Punjabi jasper, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, sapphires from Ceylon, red Carnelian from Arabia and blue Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan. Outside there is calligraphy from the Qur'an in jasper or black marble. We know that theTaj Mahal was widely vandalised in the mid nineteenth century by British soldiers who chipped out the precious and semi-precious stones but the British viceroy Lord Curzon ordered an extensive restoration project which was completed in 1908.

The Bush itself is displaying a fabulous 4 million pound renovation with a new glass entrance and garden on the Uxbridge Road for this exciting new writing venue.

For Elyse Sommer's review of the play when it premiered in New York go here

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Guards at the Taj
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Starring: Darren Kuppen, Danny Ashok
Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Richard Howell
Sound Design and original music: George Dennis
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running time: One hour ten minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 8743 5050
Booking to 20th May 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th April 2017 performance at The Bush, 7 Uxbridge Road, London W12 8LJ (Tube: Shepherds Bush Market or Shepherds Bush)
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