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Theatre review: Guards at the Taj is an arresting, brutally funny production

Directed by Jo Kukathas, the production by the Singapore Repertory Theatre brings a human scale to the grandeur of the iconic Taj Mahal.

Rajiv Joseph’s two-hander dark comedy set in the Mughal Empire begins with the seductive premise: What does it mean if nothing so beautiful as the Taj Mahal will ever be built again?

Guards At The Taj, inspired by the violent myths surrounding India’s most famous monument, revolves around two guards who stand sentinel outside the architectural marvel before it is unveiled. They fight the urge to look at it before emperor Shah Jahan sets eyes on it for the first time.

Directed by Jo Kukathas, this arresting, brutally funny production by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) brings a human scale to the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, which took 20,000 men about two decades to complete.

The award-winning play, which premiered in New York in 2015, explores the price of beauty, duty and friendship through the eyes of two imperial guards, who start by engaging in a series of comical, philosophical musings.

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Babur (Jay Saighal) has a playful imagination. He dreams of an “aeroplat” that will take him to the stars. Meanwhile, Humayun (Ghafir Akbar) is more pragmatic. He loves birds, but would rather carve them from wood than think about what it means to be able to fly.

After the Taj Mahal is unveiled, the longtime friends are saddled with a horrible task, one they must complete if they don’t want to be hanged to death and have their eyes pecked out by crows. They discharge their duties but do not escape unscathed. Babur’s babblings get increasingly dangerous and Humayun is put in a tough spot.

The chemistry between the two men is palpable. Saighal does a good job at conveying his character’s naivete, while Ghafir, who arguably has the harder role, pulls off some of the funniest lines.

The story is set in the 17th century but has no shortage of modern parallels: we are reminded, perhaps, of the Nazis’ unconditional obedience to the Fuhrer; and of bureaucrats who do what they are told so they can get by.

A play about beauty would not be complete without a beautiful set, here given a minimalist touch by Petrina Dawn Tan with twinkling stars and hues that change to reflect the time of day. Brian Gothong Tan’s multi-media projections are also impressive, ranging from 3D projections conveying the dizzying grandeur of the Taj Mahal, to a dramatic sequence of Mughal icons.

Guards At The Taj cleverly subverts conventional notions of power. It is no accident that Babur and Humayun, who offer a worm’s eye view of the Taj Mahal, are the namesakes of the first two emperors of the Mughal Empire.

We can make out the individual bricks in the walls of the monument, a fitting backdrop to Humayun’s remark that “if people see Taj Mahal and suddenly think that this wonderful, unbelievable thing was created by 20,000 ordinary men, then they begin to wonder about changing their lives. And if enough people do that, then the edge might come for the centre. And the centre could be cast away”.

While Guards At The Taj is a well-executed piece of work, there were moments where the the transitions between humour and pathos could have been more fluid, and other instances where the actors could have given the emotions more time to sink in. But that might well have been the point: it is hard for the guards themselves to grasp the extent of their actions.

The script, too, could have dug deeper into other themes underlying the Taj Mahal, such as political succession and migrant labour. And its reliance on the shock factor does not augur well for its longevity. To its credit, however, SRT’s production has downplayed the gore.

But cracks in the foundation aside, this is an important play that will make audiences laugh, wince at human vanity, and rethink the hard truths they have been told.

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BOOK IT

GUARDS AT THE TAJ

WHERE: KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT, Robertson Walk, 20 Merbau Road

WHEN: Till Dec 1, 8pm (Mondays to Saturdays); also 3pm on Saturdays; the show on Nov 23 will include sign language

ADMISSION: From $35 to $60, from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

INFO: bit.ly/2AZD1ir

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: Singapore Repertory Theatre