The character dynamic in Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” starts off simple. The only speaking characters in the play are two guards in charge of protecting the newly-built Taj Mahal, one who is obsessed with order and insists on following rules (Humayun, played by Sabina Unni), and one who is more of a troublemaker (Babur, played by Atiya Khan). It’s a classic pairing, and they bounce off each other perfectly. Their interactions throughout the opening scene go about how you’d expect, with the two of them bickering about whether they should be allowed to talk during guard duty and whether Shah Jahan’s punishment for mild sedition is too harsh.
It’s all fun, games and lighthearted comedy until they find out it’s their job to cut off the hands of twenty thousand men in one night, as the Shah never wants something as beautiful as the Taj Mahal to be built again.
After this revelation in the first scene, the play consists of the two men coping with the reality of what they’ve done. We see their squabbles go from minor arguments over rules and imaginary inventions to guilt-ridden discussions over whether they have literally killed beauty. It would have been easy for the show to get lost in its own darkness and end up looking cheap, but despite the more gut-wrenching scenes, Joseph’s script somehow manages to strike a balance between heavy and light.
During the play’s final few scenes, the two men talk over ideas for inventions like airplanes and a “transportable hole,” like schoolboys, while washing gallons of blood off the Taj Mahal. The most poignant moments in the show, however, come from moments of silence rather than dialogue; the two men stand together waiting for their watch to be over, they apply blood to each other’s faces during a scene change, they hold hands watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. Their emotions are
Joseph, and by extension Humayun and Babur, asks the question: When does “I was just doing my job” stop being an acceptable justification for violence, and when is revolution called for? The script alludes to both ancient and modern-day atrocities, from punishments for blasphemy to drone strikes. It’s an incredibly relevant play that brings to mind several recent news stories. Is a Marine officer morally responsible for the actions she carries out? Should Donald Trump’s security detail lie awake at night feeling guilty for protecting his life? Is it more important to act in accordance with one’s duties or one’s morals?
It may be logistically impossible for two people to cut off forty thousand hands in one night, but “Guards at the Taj” is worth suspending disbelief for. I left with teary eyes, clutching my own hands sympathetically. Some of the dialogue and the symbolism felt a little heavy-handed, particularly the play’s strict adherence to its own morals, but most of it was subtly written and well-played. If you didn’t get to see it this time around, check it out the next time you get the chance; just be wary of the blood.