The pair must keep guard as the construction of the famous indian white mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, reaches completion. The guards are forbidden from looking behind them at the building until it has been officially unveiled to the public.
Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph, the dialogue is modern in style and tightly delivered, showing Humayun and Babur as a straight-man/funny-man double act, chatting like two bored security guards outside a shopping centre in 2017. Humayun is driven by duty above all else, living in the shadow of his overbearing father who is high-ranking in the military. Babur is carefree and impulsive, levelling out Humayun’s repression. They are as close as brothers, as ‘bhais’.
It is when the soldiers finally give in to temptation and behold the splendour of the Taj Mahal behind them that their worlds start to unravel. They are forced to carry out acts of unspeakable barbarity in the name of duty. In the dramatic change in tone, Guards at the Taj hits its stride, with our protagonists seen streaked in the blood of their victims, becoming unrecognisable as they slip and slide, almost clown-like, in a bloody puddle. Like two lonely Samuel Beckett characters, they try and counsel each other through their ordeal with philosophical discussions on the minimalist stage set. The play’s story is based loosely on folklore rather than historical fact.
Among its themes of duty, privilege and repression, it is hard to find a clear message in Joseph’s play. Instead of feeling messy, we are given a story that is open to interpretation; for me, it is the exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that stands out. The guards are the perpetrators of horror, but having had their hands forced by a totalitarian state, they are also the victims. Kuppan gives an arresting performance as the shell-shocked Babur, weeping naked on stage as Humayun removes his bloodstained clothes and carefully dresses him in a clean uniform – a new skin.
The portrayal of symptoms of PTSD have been in theatre for years, such as in interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As the discussion of the condition has become more mainstream in recent times, any new work in the arts contributing sensitively to the conversation is of huge importance.
Guards at the Taj runs at the Bush Theatre until May 20, 2017.