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Review and production photos: Dark, powerful and funny Guards At The Taj, Bush Theatre

Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok in Guards at the Taj at the Bush Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.
Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok in Guards at the Taj at the Bush Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Director Jamie Lloyd has moved on from dark dystopian Philip Ridley plays performed in the basement at Shoreditch Town Hall to something that is arguably even darker but set in 17th century India. Guards at the Taj, at the newly revamped Bush Theatre (thumbs up for the more spacious ground floor), is a play by Pulitzer shortlisted Rajiv Joseph about two friends Humayun (Danny Ashok) and Babur (Darren Kuppan) who are guarding the Taj Mahal.

They've been assigned the lowliest guard duty - the graveyard shift - keeping watch as the finishing touches are made to the mausoleum. With their backs to the construction site they aren't allowed to turn around and look - that is a privilege only afforded the workers and the King - but as dawn starts to light up the sky the temptation grows.

The two characters - and the scenario - have echoes of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Babur is a stickler for following the rules, knows all the punishments for the various crimes and misdemeanours whereas Humayan is the rule breaker, a dreamer with a head full of fanciful inventions. They aren't supposed to talk but they do. 

However, sneaking a glance at the Taj doesn't have the consequences you might imagine, ironically it is following orders that sets in motion a series of dark and barbaric events that changes their lives and those of thousands of others.

The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, is sparse with a raised section across the back wall looking out over two troughs the function of which is only revealed later in the play. It is mottled almost rust-like or stained - industrial in feel - unworthy to be within sight of the beauty of the Taj perhaps?

Humayun and Babur's banter is funny but the dilemma and their reasoning raises important questions about duty, obedience and power. The unseen monument becomes a spectre representing a form a beauty and, subsequently, challenges the notion of what beauty actually is.

But deeper than that is what Guards at the Taj says about friendship and the beautiful and ugly nature of humanity. We see the impact of events on Humayun and Babur rather than the events themselves; there is a great deal of power in suggestion and imagination and that makes the humour and horror of it all the more the more sharp and bitter.

If I was to have one very minor quibble it would be static nature of the first scene particularly as not all the audience is sat face on but given the scenario it is a difficult one to get around. However, once the action moves on it is easily forgotten.

The weight of Guards at the Taj grows long after you've left the theatre and for that I'm giving it five stars. It is one hour and 20 minutes without an interval and is at the Bush Theatre until 20 May.