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The Theatreguide.London Review

Guards At The Taj
Bush Theatre  Spring 2017

Rajiv Joseph's play won awards in New York two years ago, but it hasn't travelled well. Much of what it has to say is unoriginal and has been said better before, and what is new is not enough to satisfy. 

Even at an uninterrupted 80 minutes, Jamie Lloyd's production at the Bush feels stretched thin.

Legend says that when the Taj Mahal was built, Shah Jahan ordered that the twenty thousand artisans and workers should all have their hands cut off, to keep them from ever creating anything more beautiful. 

Rajiv Joseph imagines the men who actually committed the atrocity, two low-ranking Imperial Guards, and how they were affected. 

We meet the pair the night before the unveiling of the Taj and see their wonder as they are the first to behold it by daylight. We then jump to after they complete their bloody task, imagined to be that very afternoon, and then to the following day as they discover that even more will be demanded of them, eventually turning one against the other. 

There is something here about the mystery of how beauty and brutality can co-exist, something about how unlimited power will make unlimited demands, something about how the small desires and ambitions of small people can suck them into greater evils, and something about how the seemingly more passive and less intelligent of the pair is actually the deeper thinker. 

And I expect that you are already footnoting each of those. 

The first is the oft-explored Nazis-loved-Beethoven conundrum, the second was developed more fully in Pinter's Dumb Waiter, and so on. Even the personalities of the two men owe strong debts to Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon (by way of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). 

Rajiv Joseph's originality lies in the exotic setting and the mythic resonances borrowed from it, and from a few almost incidental but still evocative additions. 

The lads get a promotion after their bloody work, but it is not for the twenty thousand atrocities but for cleaning up so neatly afterwards. The surprisingly deep thinker can imagine the far-distant-future invention of aeroplanes, but then almost immediately realizes the primary use of these wonders will be as war weapons. 

These are effective jolts to the audience, but they are too small, too peripheral and too few. 

Actors Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan give intense and energetic performances, but neither they nor director Jamie Lloyd can find enough depth to the men to make them real or more than shadows of their predecessors in Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Guards At The Taj - Bush Theatre 2017

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