Guards at the Taj, Bush Theatre

Production images by Marc Brenner

The angular set of Guards at the Taj stretches out into the unseen. The idea of the unseen should be an important idea in this play, but it quickly gets lost. We only get glimpses of ideas of the sensory through dramatic actions. Although that takes panache, it’s only sometimes effective and has nothing on the peaceful lyricism of even the goriest scenes in a play like Oresteia, where ideas and motifs are continually threaded through the characters’ language.

Rajiv Joseph isn’t able to pull out and fully develop all the ideas present in his writing. It’s a shame that he doesn’t fully tease apart ideas of guarding, the act of being present and waiting, in the play’s dramaturgy.

There’s almost a tone of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the guarding scenes (the act of watching and waiting) but of course it’s not as good as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And maybe trying to do a glib on it, saying ‘it’s like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but in India’ is attempting to find something white to compare it to. This is a play steeped in Indian history and it deserves to be recognised for that.

The entirety of the first scene is the maid and butler conversation. It’s India, 1648. We’re standing with our backs to the Taj. We’re the most junior of the imperial guards. We aren’t allowed to look at the Taj. There’s a rumour that the twenty thousand men who built the Taj might get their hands chopped off. Hope that job doesn’t get left down to us. Fuck it, let’s do what everyone expects us to do before they even enter the theatre and look at the Taj.

The jokey nature of the first scene is immediately wiped away as we skip to the next scene, where our two friends are forced to clean up the mess left over after cutting off forty thousand hands. This change in tone is how the whole play works: the characters mess around to cheer themselves up then remember what they’re actually doing, become sad, then try and cheer themselves up again. And that’s the rest of the play.

(By the way, the sound design is literally the same sound design used in 90% of the plays you’ve ever seen. It’s difficult to describe because it’s so bland.)

The indulgent writing (‘I killed beauty! I killed beauty!’) and the transparent structure are only saved by the gory scenes which are so distressing and horrific that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by them. They are the play’s saving grace.

It’s like Titus Andronicus but actually tragic because you get to know the characters before they’re horribly mutilated. This is a play about the realities behind the shocking gory acts (which we never really see). It’s a play that focusses on the people who have to do the clean-up afterwards. In fact, this play is only truly effective during the gory scenes.

You can almost read the play as a kind of character study. There’s the guy who chops the hands and the guy who cauterises the stumps. Cauteriser is a stickler for the rules, a daddy’s boy, a jobsworthy dickwad. Chopper is much more fun but also the kind of person who would really annoy me, the kind of person who thinks being late is just part of their personality not a bad habit.

Reading back on this, it sounds really harsh. I really enjoyed Guards at the Taj. Not enough to see it again, but I did like it.

Bechdel test: Nope. Obviously not. The play is literally two male characters talking to each other with the occasional mention of women: women in the hareem, how cleaning is a woman’s job. I don’t think there’s any way in which this play can be redeemed from a feminist perspective. Having a woman or two onstage would do nothing to this play. But, in fairness to the play, it doesn’t purport to tell the stories of women. And perhaps it’s gruelling enough without considering the realities of the female experience in 1600s India.

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