A bloody and funny play about two guards at the Taj Mahal

Guards At The Taj (starring Jay Saighal, foreground, and Ghafir Akbar, background) draws inspiration from dark and violent myths surrounding the building of the Taj Mahal.
Guards At The Taj (starring Jay Saighal, foreground, and Ghafir Akbar, background) draws inspiration from dark and violent myths surrounding the building of the Taj Mahal.ST PHOTO: MATTHIAS CHONG

Two guards in 17th-century India stand sentinel outside the Taj Mahal hours before it is to be unveiled to the public. They are not allowed to look at the monument - at least not before the emperor, who had it built for his dead wife, sets eyes on it.

So begins Rajiv Joseph's 2015 dark comedy, Guards At The Taj, which the Singapore Repertory Theatre is staging here for the first time.

The two-hander play, which explores the price of beauty, opens outside the walls of the monument. It draws inspiration from dark and violent myths surrounding the building of the Taj Mahal.

Thought to have involved 20,000 workers and taken about two decades to complete, the structure has been described as the world's most famous monument to love - and, some might say, vanity.

"The reality of the Taj Mahal is also a bit dark because it's a testament to Shah Jahan's power," says Malaysia-based Ghafir Akbar, 37, who plays one of the guards.

"When he built the Taj Mahal, there was a lot of money that was funnelled into it, taxes increased... What did it mean to the farmers, the guards, the regular folk? "

  • BOOK IT / GUARDS AT THE TAJ

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

    WHEN: Tomorrow 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

American playwright Joseph was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010. Guards At The Taj won the prestigious Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2016. The award recognises off-Broadway theatre in New York.

The play, which features a minimalist, modular set and 3D projections, will open at the KC Arts Centre tomorrow. It is directed by theatre stalwart Jo Kukathas, who starred in SRT's production of Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Park this year.

Kukathas says on the SRT website that the guards live in a city state which has harsh punishments for every act of civil disobedience - "including the ultimate: death by elephant".

"In such a society would (the guards) turn around? Or would they fear the consequences? What would a Singaporean do? A Malaysian? A Pakistani?"

The two guards, long-time friends Humayun and Babur, who find their friendship put to the test, are played by two actors who have known each other for only three weeks: Ghafir, who acted in SRT's Julius Caesar and Disgraced (2016), and London-based Jay Saighal, 29, who appeared in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2015 production of The Merchant of Venice.

"We started off drinking early. We went out for some drinks after the first rehearsal," says Saighal with a laugh. This is his Singapore debut.

Babur, an idealist, has a playful imagination, while Humayun is more comfortable accepting his lot.

"It's interesting how they've cast us this way because he (Jay) thinks a lot. I don't. I feel stupid sometimes when I'm with him," says Ghafir.

Saighal, who was invited to audition for the show, chimes in: "Ghafir's ability to embrace any situation is remarkable. You will never meet a less uninhibited actor."

Ghafir says Guards At The Taj "moves rapidly from physical comedy to the dark consequence of our actions to the denial of it all".

The dynamic between the duo, he adds, has some similarities with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's landmark play, the two tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot - and even Phua Chu Kang and Phua Chu Beng, the contractor and architect brothers from the hit Singaporean sitcom.

He feels that the play will resonate with a contemporary audience and suggests parallels might be drawn with the recent scandals involving politicians in Malaysia.

Kukathas thinks it will resonate with audiences in Singapore.

"I think in Singapore, the question of civil obedience and disobedience is not an academic one, but a real everyday concern. Singapore is a rigidly stratified, paternalistic society ruled by a strong government," she says.

Ghafir lets on that the two guards are told to do "something terrible that they can't even comprehend... and they have to do it, otherwise they are s******.

"They are put in a difficult position... And that's when the humour, the humanity come out. They have to deal with fear, grief, nervousness."

Will the play be bloody? Saighal says: "It's bloody funny is what it is."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2018, with the headline 'A bloody and funny play about two guards at the Taj Mahal'. Print Edition | Subscribe