A wickedly dark comedy based on a myth surrounding the Taj Mahal

  • Arts
  • Monday, 12 Nov 2018

Babur (Jay Saighal) and Humayun (Ghafir Akbar) as the Imperial guards in Rajiv Joseph’s Guards At The Taj, opening in Singapore on Nov 14. Photo: SRT

The Taj Mahal, said to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, is legend, romance and breathtaking white marble spectacle all rolled into one.

The majestic structure was commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in the 17th century.

Now, building on the myth surrounding the Taj Mahal that “nothing so beautiful shall ever be built again”, the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) presents Guards At The Taj, a wickedly dark comedy by American playwright Jajiv Joseph.

This Asian premiere in Singapore runs between Nov 14 and Dec 1.

Commended for its “frisky, funny dialogue”, this play is set by the Taj Mahal mere hours before its grand unveiling at dawn. Outside, two friends, Humayun and Babur, are tasked to stand guard before it.

The Sacred Oaths of the Mughal Imperial Guards say that they are forbidden to turn around to look at the monument, speak, or lower their swords. But what happens when they are ordered to do the unthinkable?

Jo Kukathas directs, with fellow Malaysian Ghafir Akbar and British actor Jay Saighal taking on the roles of the Imperial Guards in this two-hander production.

“These two heroes are two ordinary men tasked with guarding the Taj being built behind them. They are not to speak, not to lower their swords and above all not to turn around and even look at it. All this in a city state which has harsh grades of punishment for every act of civil disobedience, including the ultimate: death by elephant. In such a society would they turn around? Or would they fear the consequences?” says Kukathas.

Guards At The Taj had its premiere in the United States in 2015, and was the winner of the 2016 Obie Awards for Best New Play.

“When I first picked up the play a year ago I kept being surprised by it. Just when I thought, ‘oh the play is about this’, I would turn the page and find out that, ‘no, it wasn’t just about this, but also about ... that’. So Rajiv Joseph knows how to tell a story,” she says.

In Guards At The Taj, the two men are as different as night and day. One is given to flights of fancy, but the other prefer a more stoic approach and considers his friend’s imaginative streak to be just slightly disturbing.

And how powerful is Beauty?

“Can you stop Beauty from having an effect on people? Authoritarian regimes are terrified of Beauty and compelled by it. They build massive gorgeous monuments to art and beauty as testaments to their own power and then are terrified by people’s response to them – because Beauty evokes a response that can’t be controlled,” Kukathas muses.

Jo Kukathas directs Guards At The Taj at Singapore Repertory Theatre.

Mythologies try to make sense of the paradox of beauty, she says, noting that Medusa was turned into something that petrifies all those who gaze at her.

“She who was once so beautiful now turns men to stone. She is still beautiful but nowadays we tend to forget that. We only remember that she is terrifying. Don’t look straight at her. Beauty will destroy you. That’s the myth. That’s how powerful Beauty is when it isn’t filtered,” she says.

With Guards At The Taj, Rajiv Joseph explores a brutal legend about the building of the Taj Mahal and asks what is the price of Beauty.

“I want audiences not just to see two men talking about Beauty but I want them to experience it themselves. Maybe I want them to be a bit terrified of it too,” she adds.

Kukathas, who was last seen on SRT’s Shakespeare in the Park – Julius Caesar as the titular character earlier this year, describes the upcoming play as “bloody funny” – with a period between the words.

“The poster says ‘Bloody. Funny.’ But I think you will laugh and shiver at the same time. And I hope you will be overwhelmed,” she says.

The director sees the need and love for dreamers and madmen and beauty in our lives.

"They can destroy us, but like moths to the flame we are drawn to these things. Is it wrong? No. Yes. We are paradoxes, we humans. Maybe we aren’t brave enough to live our lives to its fullness, but we need the catharsis of watching other people attempting to do just that. We may laugh at them but it’s bittersweet, this tragic-comedy we call life. And we need catharsis. We need to laugh and cry and be revolted and be compelled,” concludes Kukathas.

Guards At the Taj is on at the KC Arts Centre at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, Merbau Road in Singapore Nov 14 to Dec 1. More info: www.srt.com.sg.

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