Arts

Guards at the Taj Review: Beauty Comes at a Price

Guards at the Taj is a personal story of a friendship challenged under dictatorship. Two long-term friends, Humayun and Babur, stand guard at the Taj Mahal hours before it is unveiled at dawn. They are forbidden to look at the monument, speak, or lower their swords. The play reaches a turning point as the guards are ordered to do an unimaginably violent act and their friendship is changed forever.

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (3)

I leave the Singapore Repertory Theatre after Guards at the Taj with mixed feelings. For a start, I am impressed by the actors’ performance, especially since the whole play only runs on the two protagonists. All the wry humour, absurdities, and tragedy on a large scale have to be conveyed through their sole interactions.

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (4)

Especially noteworthy is Ghafir Akbar’s performance, whose character as the older guard Humayun is more complex. From the beginning of the play, Humayun appears to be law-abiding but nonetheless shares cheeky moments with his fellow guard Babur, the more laidback of the two. His constant struggle between upholding the law and letting loose incorporated humour drew frequent laughs from the audience.

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (1)

When Humayun was confronted with an especially difficult decision in regards to his friend during the second part of the play, his pain is palpable as he wails and refuses to look at Babur. Jay Saighal, in comparison, is given a less multi-dimensional character. Throughout the play, Babur is portrayed as a sensitive and laid-back guard with a bountiful imagination, but he does not seem to possess any practical wisdom to survive in a dictatorship. It is even doubtful that such a character can survive for so long under a regime as harsh as the one in the play. His chants of “Kill the King!” at one point also seems naive and does not show any other side to his personality.

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (7)

The play’s attempts to make light of heavy situations work in some areas more than others. For instance, the absurdity of Babur’s claim, “I killed beauty!” after he committed an act of violence upon the Emperor’s decree, and Humayun vying with him to take more responsibility is very effective in bringing unlikely humour to an otherwise bleak situation. In another example, the references to ‘haram’ – an Arabic term to dictate an act that is forbidden – seem a little overused to be truly funny. 

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (2)

The greatest issue I have, however, is with how the playwright Rajiv Joseph wants his viewers to interpret his play’s message. As mentioned in the programme booklet, Rajiv Joseph draws a parallel from the play’s themes to today’s society by citing “patriarchy, communism, capitalism, religion, democracy, globalization, racism, xenophobia…” as the powers that are imposed on people who cannot fight back.

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (6)

He concludes by saying, “the Guards of this play must make a decision to join the King or reject him. These are the decisions we all have to make.” Grouping all those terms under one umbrella of oppression is too simplistic, and also disregards the degree difference that each oppression brings. For instance, to survive under dictatorship requires a very different set of skills from living under democracy, and under the extremes of a totalitarianism one may not be given a choice at all.

Guards at the Taj: Ghafir Akhbar and Jay Saighal (5)

Ultimately, reality is murkier: it is seldom the powerful versus the powerless. One can play the dual role of both the oppressed and the oppressor. This can be seen many times throughout history, where the oppressed rise to become the oppressor, and power is more often relative than absolute. By presenting the decision as simply as to obey or disobey the rules is to ignore the complexity of the world at large.

Rating: 3/5

Photos courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre.

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Yimin Huang

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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