5 Questions with Ghafir Akbar and Jay Saighal on SRT’s Latest Production: Guards at the Taj

Guards at the Taj, written by award-winning playwright and winner of the best new play in the 2016 Obie awards, Rajiv Joseph, will be performed in KC Arts Centre from 14 November 2018 to 1 December 2018.

Set in 1648, Guards at the Taj is a dark comedy based on a myth about Taj Mahal, a mausoleum commissioned by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In the play, the majestic beauty of the Taj Mahal is a deliberate contrast to the ordinary guards who are placed in charge of the mausoleum the day before its unveiling. They are instructed not to look at the monument, lower their swords, or speak to each other (but of course, they broke the last rule so the play can go on).

The two guards Humayun and Babur, played by actors Ghafir Akbar (Shakespeare in the Park – Julius Caesar, Disgraced) and Jay Saighal (The Merchant of Venice, Royal Shakespeare Company), are good friends who seem to have opposite personalities. While Humayun is a loyal follower of the emperor and rule abider, Babur is a dreamer whose ambitions are not bound by societal norms. The clever tête-à-tête between the two guards accounts for much of the comedic fun in the first half of the play.

The seemingly lighthearted tale then takes a dark turn rather suddenly, when the guards are faced with an order to kill. How would they respond, and what do their responses reveal about their friendship and themselves?

Check out our exclusive interview with Ghafir and Jay to find out more:

Guards at the Taj: Jay and Ghafir

1. Have you been to Taj Mahal? What are your impressions of the monument and why do you think it is used in the play?

Ghafir: Yes, I visited the Taj Mahal quite a long time ago when I was in my late teens. I remember being driven up towards the Taj and not being able to see it. Even when we were approaching the gate,  I was wondering if the Taj could possibly be near me as I couldn’t see it. But as we approached the gate, there it was, radiating. I think the Taj is used for multiple reasons both as a symbol of authority and a symbol of beauty. But the play excavates not just about the Taj as a piece of monument, but ultimately asking what is the cost of beauty and power to the people (and in our instance, these two guards) who lived under the Mughal empire.

Jay: I have been to the Taj Mahal! I was about 16 at the time and my main memory is of the light – it was a sunny day and the sun on the facade was absolutely dazzling. It really is astonishing. It’s used for many reasons, I think. As a metaphor for beauty. For human endeavour. For love. For purity. But there are also undertones in the play of some less savoury elements to it. Was it built by Shah Jahan, or by the workers that hewed the marble? Was it built for love, or for vanity?

2. What research/preparation do you have to do in order to portray your character convincingly?

Ghafir: I did some historical reading on the Taj Mahal and the Mughal empire to get an overview of the sociopolitical world these two guards would have been under. It’s not a historical play, so I didn’t think an exhaustive understanding of the Mughal empire was necessary. Instead, I sought inspiration from people who write/talk/fought for beauty and desire, when beauty and desire did not come easily in their world.

Jay: There’s always a good deal of research that goes into the historical background of the play in general. But in terms of character, I tend to read the character from my point of view. How much do I agree with what he says? How much do I disagree? Can I see changing my point of view if I’d had similar life experiences to my character? I like to meet my characters halfway – a part is only half formed on the page. You have to give it your own spin.

3. Comedy is crucial to this play, and making people laugh can be tricky. How do you deliver your lines with humour?

Ghafir: You can’t try to be funny. And this play has many different kind of funnies. From physical comedy, to situational comedy, to dark comedy. Each possess a certain kind of underlying action that fills the world of the play. Comedy relies heavily on timing. And when it’s only two people on stage, you really depend on your co-actor to bounce that comedic momentum with. I am lucky to have a talented, generous and open partner in Jay, so if the comedy is played right, it’s because of him as well. 

Jay: There are many different types of humour. And so I hope that, in our production, it’s not just saying lines in a “funny” way (although there may be a bit of that!). There’s some slapstick. There’s some dry wit. There’s the absurdity of the situation contrasted to the characters attitudes towards it. And so much of it is about feeding off the audience when you’re playing the show. Different audiences find different things funny.

4. The personality clash between the two guards is central to the play. Which guard do you relate to more in real life? How does that affect your acting (if at all)?

Ghafir: Yes, on the exterior, you may see that these are two very different guards. But not long after the play starts, you’ll begin to realise that it isn’t as black and white as that. These two young guards have such strong desires and dreams. That’s why they are best friends. They can’t be like brothers if they want different things. What sets them apart are certain points of view about what they are allowed to do to want those things. If Babur and Humayun have no money, for example, but they both want a cupcake, each will have different feelings about getting that cupcake. Now imagine them under the rule of Emperor Shah Jahan on the first morning that Taj Mahal was first unveiled. 

Jay: I think the lovely thing about Humayun and Babur is that they’re not entirely opposite in terms of their character. If they were, they wouldn’t be friends. While they appear so different, there are depths to both that I can relate to, certainly. Of course, having spent the last 3 weeks trying to understand Babur, I think I’m probably a little closer to him…

5. How do you see the relevance of this play with society today?

Ghafir: The play looks at the differences between the haves and the have nots. The haves get to build monuments like the Taj, the Marina Bay Sands, (and) the Petronas Twin Towers. But it is the have nots that have to build these monuments for them, so what do the have nots get to build? How are they compensated? What are the consequences of these mega-structures on their lives and livelihood? It looks at loyalty to the 1% by the 99%. Or would it be more correct to say that the 1% serves the 99%. Who owns what? Are you loyal to the people who owns the means of production? If you had to choose, would you be loyal to a friend or loyal to a King? These are contemporary questions that also exist within our world of Guards at the Taj – all wrapped up in a startlingly humorous banter between two unfortunate guards, at the Taj. 

Jay: The themes that are thrown up: questioning what defines beauty, of right versus wrong, of loyalty – to a friend, to the state – are big questions that I think plague everyone from time to time. Then there are the stories of the regular people. We may look at Shah Jahan and the Mughal Empire and feel very far removed from them, but there is still a huge inequality in wealth and power distribution today which makes one question the value of one human being set against another. How different for the workers are the conditions for building the Taj Mahal and for building Qatar’s World Cup Stadiums? It’s up (to) the individual to decide what they think, and how (and if) they want to change the values of the society they live in. 

Packed with slapstick humour, absurdities and dry wit, Guards at the Taj leaves much to laugh and think about. As actor Jay Saighal puts it perfectly, the themes of beauty, loyalty, and fairness are big questions that plague everyone from time to time. Equally relevant is the reflection on whether much has changed since then, and how much sacrifice is required of the lower class to give birth to the great monuments of yesterday and today.

Guards at the Taj

Guards at the Taj: Show Poster

Date: 14 November 2018 – 1 December 2018
Venue: KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT

Tickets start at S$45. For more information, visit http://www.srt.com.sg/show/guardsatthetaj/.

Visuals courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre.

Huang Yimin

Aiming to live passionately and not settle for a mundane life. Firm believer in the Oscar Wilde quote "You can never be overdressed or overeducated". I wish to publish a novel someday in the unknown future.

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