Guards At The Taj : An intense dark comedy that makes a captivating experience to watch

Reviewed By Saba Zaidi Abdi

Guards At The Taj staged by National Theatre of Parramatta (NTofP) from  February 24 to March 5 was a significant production in many ways; It was their first production of a play written, directed and performed by an all Indian origin cast and staged in the hub of South Asian cultural centre Parramatta, which is a celebration of diversity, inclusion and acknowledgement of emerging new subcultures in Australian landscape presented on the mainstream platform.

Set against the backdrop of Taj Mahal, the symbol of eternal beauty, the plot weaves around the myths that surround its creation. Written by US based award-winning playwright Rajiv Joseph in 2015 the play is a modern take on an old myth that deals with exploration of beauty and power, autocracy and resistance and conflicting loyalties where relationships are tested and broken by extreme and brutal circumstances. A directorial debut on professional stage by Bali Padda, it was an impressive and powerful play. Credit goes to the two lead actors Akkashey and Caplash as Babur and Idam Sondhinas Humayun who held the whole narrative together through 90 minutes long intense and psychologically challenging character portrayals with their skillful performances.

It is the year 1648, the morning’s first light, a towering new tomb, 16 years in making  draped in the white marble representing the soaring power of the empire will be unveiled, the glorious Taj Mahal. But for the two helpless guards assigned to protect the monument, morning will set the unimaginable existential crisis that will shake their faith in their being, the empire and each other. The two are assigned, to execute the royal decree, to chop and cauterizing the hands of 20,000 artisans who build this edifice of beauty, Taj Mahal, so that no equal to it can ever be created. Tormented and almost dehumanized by this ordeal the two friends sink deeper into despair. Guards at the Taj is a dark comedy, and at times morbid that goes much deeper than the obvious story line, it portrays the timeless conflict that exist between authoritarianism and resistance to autocracy, fear of the powerful and freedom of choice.

The play had a captivating pace and progresses smoothly. While Babur is funny and free thinking who loves to question, his friend Humayun conforms to the norms and scared of authority personified in his father whom we never see but looms large in the background. The play started to drag a bit when the young guards start to talk about black holes that could have been edited shorter.

Overall it was an intense and captivating production that kept its viewers spellbound, the visual appeal of the dramatization was strong and effective. The imaginative set design and optimum use of a small stage space in act one as palace gates and in act two as Maqtal ( (prison slaughterhouse) was commendable. James Browne design successfully invoked an atmosphere of grandeur contrasted with desolate blood drenched slaughterhouse. However, the ceremonial costumes worn by the guards at the palace gates looked more like that of courtiers rather than those worn by the guards. The dramatic tension was further enhanced by imaginative, mood setting and at times stark lighting by Kate Baldwin. The rich use of colours gave a lyrical edge to the visual texture of the play.

While most visual elements were drawn from more culturally specific Mughal period, the music used in the play was more contemporary and modern in nature. The accomplished and nuanced musical score and sound design composed by Me Lee Hay had a haunting quality about it that beautifully underlines the situational and inner conflict of the play. But what makes Guards At The Taj a memorable experience is when all these richly crafted elements along with a talented team of actors are skillfully brought (woven) together by Bali Padda’s to create an imaginative whole. Qudos to Padda for coming up with this amazing production as his directorial debut.

A turning point on professional stage as we look forward to more such culturally diverse stories told from the perspective of those whom it is written about which will be a true reflection of contemporary society.

Pics. Courtesy Noni Carroll Photography

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