Theatre review - Guards at the Taj, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

PUBLISHED: 09:35 19 August 2019

Luke Murphy (Babur) and Devesh Kishore (Humayun). Photo by Robert Day

Luke Murphy (Babur) and Devesh Kishore (Humayun). Photo by Robert Day

Robert Day

An Indian Summer in Keswick?

Luke Murphy (Babur) and Devesh Kishore (Humayun). Photo by Robert Day.Luke Murphy (Babur) and Devesh Kishore (Humayun). Photo by Robert Day.

The final production for the summer season at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) takes us back to India, 1648, to the completion of the Taj Mahal as seen through the eyes of two guards. It is not for the squeamish as it brings humour and horror together in a courageous union which is more 'red' comedy than 'black'.

The plot centres around the barbarous (and arguably spurious) story that Shah Jahan took the 20,000 workers on his great tribute to his dead wife and had their hands cut off. Someone had to do the cutting: who? And how would that affect them?

Rajiv Joseph is an American playwright of Indian descent who is known for his bold take with his plots. The play, written in 2015, takes a rather modern view - mocking itself for doing so at times - and abounds in swearing, sexual innuendo and bloodthirsty conversation. Yet - and forgive me if this sounds wrong - it is immensely entertaining.

A two-hander relies on damned good actors and if there's one things TBTL does every single season it's hiring superb talent. Devesh Kishore deftly plays both the necessary fixed-chin hard man and the fearful child-man needed for his character, Humayun, who wants to succeed in the royal guard but is terrified of his high-ranking father. Luke Murphy is beautifully innocent as the crazy dreaming artist-in-spirit Babur. It is Babur we empathise with and Babur we root for throughout. Credit also needs to go to designer Elizabeth Wright for an amazingly clever set design which is as daring the play itself.

It would be easy, with such a storyline, to descend into melodrama worthy of Tennessee Williams which would actually spoil the message. Instead, Rajiv Joseph uses humour to present the youthful naivety of these two characters and contrasts this with the horror which will change both men forever. This is a 'Full Metal Jacket' kind of Vietnam War story put into India. It is the universal story that good men will do bad things when those in authority tell them(us) to do so. As such, 'Guards at the Taj' is not a period drama at all, but a modernist play with a theme which resonates with us today. With TBTL setting this in their intimate studio theatre, we are all but invited to take an active part in this story. It is fun, it is horrifying, it is possibly the most memorable thing you'll see this year in any theatre production.

'Guards at the Taj' is showing at Theatre by the Lake's studio theatre until 2 November. To find out more call the Box Office on 017687 74411 or visit www.theatrebythelake.com.

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