Lennox Theatre, February 26
We never see it, but it explodes in our imaginations: a glistening white vision unveiled at dawn on the day the play begins. It is 1648, and the Taj Mahal, supposedly the world’s most beautiful edifice, is finally to be revealed after 16 years of secretive construction. Our protagonists – two imperial guards – can’t help but steal an early look.
Rajiv Joseph’s 2015 play winds beauty and suffering around and around each other, so the former is both the cause of the latter and its only balm. Imagine the black-humoured banter of Waiting for Godot dressing the bloodiest deeds of Greek tragedy, and you are near the mark of this deeply disturbing and yet engrossing play, stunningly realised in a National Theatre of Parramatta production by first-time professional director Bali Padda.
Babur (Akkshey Caplash) and Humayun (Idam Sondhi) stand guard outside the Taj on the graveyard shift – the only shift they know. Humayun’s father may be a senior military figure, but, scorning his son, he’s disinclined to promote his cause in the service. As with the Taj, we don’t see the father, but he permeates Humayun’s perspective and motivations, and therefore the tragedy that unfolds.
Joseph’s story is probably a myth: the emperor Shah Jahan decrees the beauty of the Taj (built as a tomb for his favourite wife) must never be equalled, and therefore the hands of its 20,000 makers must be lopped off. Babur and Humayun, friends since boyhood, are given the grim task, the former chopping and the latter cauterizing. Scarred to his soft core by the experience, Babur suggests a form of revenge that staunch Humayun can’t abide.
Matched with James Browne’s striking set and costumes, Kate Baldwin’s lighting and Me-Lee Hay’s score, the acting is supreme. Caplash brings charismatic warmth to Babur, the garrulous dreamer and eternal child, under whose influence Humayun unbends from the severity imbued in him by his father, and Sondhi is equally good at calibrating this change.
Part of their bond is a shared love of beauty: Babur’s more poetical, while Humayun is fully alive to it in birdlife. Babur’s concern is that in fulfilling their orders they have killed beauty, itself, and their compassion for each other following the atrocity is profoundly moving.
It’s not just that directorial debuts don’t come any stronger than this, few productions of any sort do.