SINGAPORE - Two guards in 17th century India stand sentinel outside the 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 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 does it mean to the farmers, the guards, the regular folk? "
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.
BOOK IT/ GUARDS AT THE TAJ
WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, Robertson Walk, 20 Merbau Road
WHEN: Nov 14 till Dec 1,Mon - Sat: 8pm 8pm (Monday to Saturday), 3pm (Saturday). Nov 23's show will also be in Singapore Sign Language.
ADMISSION: From $35 to $60 (excluding booking fee), from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg).
The play, which features a minimalist, modular set and some 3D projections, will open at the KC Arts Centre on Wednesday (Nov 14). It is directed by theatre stalwart Jo Kukathas, who starred in SRT's production of Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Park this year (2018).
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, longtime friends Humayun and Babur who find their friendship put to the test, are played by two actors who have only known each other for 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 very 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 that 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 Guildensternin 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 the contractor and architect brothers from the famous 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.
Director 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 very 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 really difficult position... And that's when the humour, the humanity comes out. They have to deal with fear, grief, nervousness."
Will the play be bloody?
Saighal says: "It's bloody funny is what it is."