Stand­ing guard

Ra­jiv Joseph’s award-win­ning Guards At The Taj will have its Asian pre­miere in Sin­ga­pore.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Culture - By ROUWEN LIN star2@thes­tar.com.my

SAID to be one of the most beau­ti­ful build­ings in the world, The Taj Ma­hal 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.

Its Asian pre­miere is on Nov 14.

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 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.

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, de­scribes the 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.

“We need and love 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.”

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.

Malaysian ac­tress-di­rec­tor Jo Kukathas di­rects Guards at the Taj at Sin­ga­pore Reper­tory The­atre.

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