▲ Humayun and Babur are astonished after peeking at the Taj Mahal.PROVIDED BY DAL COMPANY.
The Mughal Empire’s Emperor Shah Jahan, meaning “king of the world” in Persian, was one of the most influential figures in the world in the 1630s. The emperor, dissatisfied with his territory that was equivalent to the size of today’s India, decided to expand his empire. Mumtaz Mahal, his most beloved wife, died from fever while she was giving birth to their 14th baby during the expedition at Deccan Plateau. After grieving her death for a year, the monarch ordered the building of the Taj Mahal, which took 20 years of work by 20,000 workers, and was later nominated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Guards at the Taj (2017) gives audiences a glimpse into the Mughal Empire, as two sentries discuss the values of life.
Premiered in 2015 by Rajiv Joseph, a well-known playwright who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama with his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (2009), the play Guards at the Taj visits Korea for the first time. Jo Seong Yoon and Choi Jae Rim play Humayun, and Kim Jong Gu and Lee Sang Yi play Babur. All four members are worthy of notice, in that they all made appearances in dozens of acclaimed plays and musicals in Korea such as Jekyll & Hyde; The Musical (2014), Jack the Ripper (2016), and The Goddess Watches over Us (2014).
Five minutes before the start, Humayun, a guard in an Indian costume carrying a threatening sword suddenly appears and stands right in front of the stage. In the midst of the cold air, the bloody smell of chemicals and the sound of insects in the dawn fill the theater, letting the audience forget about the sweltering weather outside. Dim light casts shadows over the guard’s face, making the viewers wonder about what he is thinking. As soon as the play begins, another sentry Babur rushes onto the stage, effectively showing his clumsy and impish character. After a few seconds of silence, Babur insists on talking to Humayun. At first, Humayun refuses to chat while on duty, but he eventually ends up having a conversation about their work and life in general.
The entire play is led by only two actors, Humayun and Babur, making it a two-hander that pulls the audience into the act powerfully. The director puts forth the two guards who have starkly contrasting traits—as described above, Babur is a talkative and bright tempered immature man, while Humayun is a stern and principled man. Their little conflict— Humayun insisting on doing his duty and keeping silent, while Babur tries to gethim to talk—gives a humorous touch to the rather dark-themed play.
▲ Stern and principled Humayun comes to life by Choi Jae Rim. PROVIDED BY DAL COMPANY.
Their smooth interaction did not happen overnight. “Because in twohanders an actor is required to understand his partner thoroughly and move the play forward together, four actors did not choose their roles; rather, final roles were determined after understanding the play completely through several rehearsals,” stated DAL company, which is in charge of the play's production.
A second noticeable feature of the play is that the lead roles are guards, not kings or dignitaries who had significant impact on history. From the perspective of mainstream history, Taj Mahal is the symbol of the love of a heartbroken emperor, Shah Jahan, who missed his wife so much. However, the playwright used the two guards who are at the lowest rank to show his unique insight, dramatically illustrating India at that time from the viewpoint of the oppressed public. Throughout their conversation, it is revealed that the emperor was not a hopeless romantic from a tragic love story, but rather an insane dictator who brutally punished dissidents; he ordered to cut the hands off of 20,000 people who constructed the tomb, because he did not want any beautiful building to be built after Taj Mahal.
Although the play is based on a novel that sheds light on the Taj Mahal in a rather unique way, it cannot escape the criticism that it resorted to overly provocative scenes to grab the attention of the audience. As described above, the playwright adopted the legend of cutting the hands off of 20,000 people. In the play, the two guards are forced to take care of this dirty work; they scream in agony after managing to finish the cruel act of sawing off hands and searing them with hot irons. This scene might have left an indelible impression in the mind of the audience, but it leaves many wondering if such violence is truly necessary. What’s more, the two actors take off their robes to show their muscular bodies; it was difficult to free oneself from the thought that the scene was a deliberate attempt to catch people’s attention.
As indicated in the title, the playwright's original intention was to combine elements of comedy, horror, and philosophy in a single play. Packing in all these at once must be a daunting task, and Guards at the Taj seems to have fallen short of this ambitious goal. The duo has a hilarious talk, and then next, they shriek in guilt, cleaning up the floor filled with the blood of the workers. In the mayhem, they throw around incomprehensible questions, such as “Imagine a hole, the hole through which you can transport from one location to another one; you have one in your pocket, then what if your pocket goes inside the hole?” The terrifying scenes and actors’ screaming do not help very much when audiences are trying to contemplate the message the playwright tried to convey.
▲ Poster of Guards at the Taj. PROVIDED BY DAL COMPANY.