Duty and beauty in the shadow of Taj Mahal

Ghafir Akbar (left) and Jay Saighal play guards at the newly built Taj Mahal before it is unveiled.
Ghafir Akbar (left) and Jay Saighal play guards at the newly built Taj Mahal before it is unveiled.PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

REVIEW / THEATRE

GUARDS AT THE TAJ

Singapore Repertory Theatre

KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT Last Friday


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

Guards At The Taj, inspired by the violent myths surrounding the construction of India's most famous monument, revolves around two guards who stand sentinel outside the structure before it is unveiled.

This arresting, brutally funny production directed by Jo Kukathas, explores notions of beauty, duty and friendship through the two men's eyes.

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 two friends are saddled with a horrible and shocking task, one they must complete if they do not want to be killed. They discharge their duties, but do not escape unscathed. Babur's babblings get increasingly dangerous and Humayun is put in a tough spot.

  • 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; this Friday's show will include sign language

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

    INFO: bit.ly/2AZD1ir

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 award-winning play, which premiered in New York in 2015, has modern parallels. The audience is reminded, perhaps, of the Nazis' unconditional obedience to the Fuhrer; and of bureaucrats who do what they are told to secure comfortable lives.

The set, given a minimalist touch by Petrina Dawn Tan, features twinkling stars and hues that reflect the time of day. Brian Gothong Tan's impressive multi-media projections help convey the dizzying grandeur of the Taj Mahal.

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

While Guards At The Taj is a well-executed piece of work, there were moments where the transitions between humour and pathos could have been more fluid; 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 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. SRT's production, to its credit, has downplayed the gore.

Cracks in the foundation aside, this is an important play that will make audiences laugh and wince at human vanity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2018, with the headline 'Duty and beauty in the shadow of Taj Mahal'. Print Edition | Subscribe