The warnings given as we walked into the Studio at Theatre by the Lake on a dark and stormy night in Keswick created the same emotions as when the safety harness locks and there's no point of return on a rollercoaster - terror and excitement, writes Karen Morley-Chesworth. And this regional premiere of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph leaves you with that same spinning of emotions you get when stepping off the twister ride. You can't quite take in everything which has happened before you, it was alarming, but you'd like to relive the experience all over again.
The one-act, two-man play is set in Agra, India, 1648 on the day the Taj Mahal is completed. Built for love, by Shah Jahan for his best-loved wife, and as myth has it covered in the blood of those who designed and built it.
There is no evidence to the gruesome stories of what Shah Jahan did - however, there are none to discredit them. Joseph uses the two guards, Humayun (Devesh Kishore) and Babur (Luke Murphy) appointed to protect the Taj Mahal on the morning of hits completion to view the myth/events through their eyes.
Humayun and Babur have been life-long friends, their relationship and history unfold before us from their forbidden chatter. This has been an excellent piece of casting as Kishore and Murphy together have a perfect, on-stage relationship that brings the warmth and love of two old friends to the fore.
Prepared for the worst, it felt a little uncomfortable at first to be laughing along with the two guards as they stood to attention. The script is engaging, funny and places you in a position to feel the full trust of the reality which unfolds for the two friends.
The delivery of this wonderful script is reminiscent of Horrible Histories - the talk of gruesome punishments and a dictator's control in the context of humour.
Babur's daydreaming and creation of inventions in his head of capsules which could fly to the burning fires in the sky, or transport you to Turkey were really amusing, their banter felt modern and real.
There are moments of pure comic genius, and the timing of delivery between Kishore and Murphy is superb. At times, it is also reminiscent of the TV comedy Plebs - a different period of history yet the same situation of the majority without freedom and at the mercy of a cruel leader.
The twist in the tale hits the audience hard as the simple set in the intimate Studio turns into a blood bath. Watching the humanity of two young men destroyed by a decree which reduces them to their rank and their role is shocking. The words "Just doing our jobs" rings through the centuries to explain hideous crimes against humanity - yet this play captures what that must feel like from inside those forced into those hideous roles.
Murphy as Babur, the joker of the two, beautifully captures the breaking down of the mind and spirit in his performance. Sat so close to the men as they attempt to work their way through cleaning up their mind and conscience is moving.
Just as you think you have gone through the worst, this one-act play which seems to swipe time away takes you one step further - leaving one woman in the audience in tears.
Kishore as Humayun brings one final piece of pure magical theatre to life in the final scene. To say more about the play would ruin the impact of this brilliant piece of writing, and this drama that uses comedy and tragedy to open the audience's eyes to what blindly following or believing a leader can lead to.
As Humayun says, they are at the centre, close to the emperor and they have a nice life - if they don't follow orders they will be cast out and lose that nice life. But what is the cost of keeping your position and can you live with that?
Guards at the Taj was developed at the Lark Play Development Centre in New York City. It feels like it has come from the heart of India yet is a tale of international significance.
Please don't be put off by the warnings of its gruesome nature. Though the stage designers have done an amazing job of creating something, in reality you wouldn't want to see, it is done in a way that even someone as squeamish as me can sit through and appreciate.
‘Guards at the Taj’ runs at Theatre by the Lake’s Studio until 2nd November. To find out more call the Box Office on 017687 74411 or visit www.theatrebythelake.com
Reviewer: Karen Morley-Chesworth
Reviewed: 10th August 2019
North West End Rating: ★★★★