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An interview with Guards at the Taj director, Jo Kukathas

Singapore Repertory Theatre will be staging the riveting two-hander Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph this November 2018. Winner of the 2016 Obie Awards for Best New Play, Guards at the Taj is about two low-level imperial guards whose duty is to stand guard at the brand-new Taj Mahal hours before it is to be unveiled at dawn; the play reaches a turning point when the guards are ordered to do the unthinkable. Jo Kukathas, who was last seen on SRT’s Shakespeare in the Park – Julius Caesar as the titular character, will now be putting on her director’s hat for this play. We speak with her to learn more about the play and what we can expect.

  1. What was it that you saw in Guards at the Taj that you agreed to direct the play?

There’s so much I want to say but it will give the plot away so I have to be careful! Because I don’t want to do that. When I first picked up the play a year ago I kept being surprised by it. Just when I thought oh the play is about this I would turn the page and find out that, no, it wasn’t just about this, but also about … that. So Rajiv Joseph knows how to tell a story. 

So without giving the plot away I should say that the play is based on some dark and violent myths and legends surrounding the building of that most famous of beautiful monument to Love – The Taj Mahal. But it is not about the man behind it or the woman who inspired it or the architect who designed or even the men who built it. No. It’s two heroes are two ordinary men – like you and me – tasked with guarding the Taj being built behind them: tasked to guard it from prying eyes. They are not to look at it either. They are not to speak, not to lower their swords and above all not to turn around and even look at it. All this in a city state which has harsh grades of punishment for every act of civil disobedience, including the ultimate: death by elephant. In such a society would they turn around? Or would they fear the consequences? What would a Singaporean do? A Malaysian? A Pakistani?

But of course no two men are the same. So we know there’s going to be some drama in store. Who will turn around? Who wants to? What happens next?

In the play the two men are very different. Babur has a playful inventive imagination. He imagines flying machines that can get close to the stars. He wants to investigate these strange bodies of light, to find their meaning and purpose. Who made them. Why? What would it mean for humanity to find out? For his best friend Humayun, Babur’s flights of fancy are compelling but they border on blasphemy. For Humayun it is enough to follow the laws set down by the Emperor Shah Jahan. And now the Emperor wants to build a monument to his love! This makes the Emperor human. But he doesn’t want anyone to see it before it is built. It’s public but hugely secret. This make him complex. He is a man both powerful and emotional.  This makes him terrifying. What will he want next? We all know the human price paid through the years for the caprices of the mighty and this play explores that very terrible human price.

And then there is Beauty. Can you stop Beauty from having an effect on people? Authoritarian regimes are terrified of Beauty and compelled by it. They build massive gorgeous monuments to art and beauty as testaments to their own power and then are terrified by people’s response to them. Because Beauty evokes a response that can’t be controlled. People long for it AND are petrified by it. It wrong foots us. It makes you stop dead in your tracks and question all you think you know. It makes you think there is something in the world greater than your king or your god or your Prime Minister or your shabby life. That’s terrifying. So we want to create it and destroy it. Mythologies try to make sense of the paradox of beauty. The Gorgon Medusa was so beautiful that the even the Gods couldn’t control their desires. Poseidon rapes her in Athena’s temple and Athena punishes her for it. Her beauty is at fault. She is turned into something that literally then petrifies all those who gaze at her. She who was once so beautiful now turns men to stone. She is still beautiful but nowadays we tend to forget that. We only remember that she is terrifying. Don’t look straight at her. Beauty will destroy you. That’s the myth. That’s how powerful Beauty is when it isn’t filtered. With the Guards Rajiv Joseph explores a brutal legend about the building of the Taj Mahal and asks What Price Beauty? 

So I want audiences not just to see two men talking about Beauty but I want them to experience it themselves. Maybe I want them to be a bit terrified of it too.

  1. Guards at the Taj has played in USA and UK. Would you bring anything different to the production?

I think in Singapore the question of civil obedience and disobedience is not an academic one but a very real everyday concern. Singapore is a rigidly stratified, paternalistic society ruled by a strong government. There are carrots and sticks. The threat is that stability, security and obedience are paramount otherwise there will be chaos and disorder. Punishments are carried out for those who disobey the rules. So I think the play will resonate. But because no two citizens are alike even Singaporean citizens rebel and obey. It’s an endless push and pull. 

The play takes the same principle and turns it into theatre. Society may be authoritarian but people are all not born the same. Babur is born rebellious meaning he doesn’t just accept everything at face value. But Humayun whether through upbringing or nature shies away from such critical thinking. But what I find fascinating about Humayun is that he does this not because he is innately without a sense of adventure or curiosity or inventiveness (he has some good ideas too – the travelling hole for example!)  but because he, his society – his father, his king, his country – have made him fearful, have made him perhaps even turn away from his true nature as a human being. So the play also asks well, what is it after all to be human?

I also don’t like productions where the differences between the two character are too clear with Humayun unyielding and military-like and Babur the playful, messy artist. It’s too cliché. Babur should be struggling with his desires. And I’d like to see a more complex, messy Humayun struggling with the choices he has made. He should not be in a state of equilibrium. He is young. His character hasn’t formed yet. The man he is going to be isn’t there yet. Otherwise the dichotomy is too predictable. Of course the problem is that I haven't found that actor yet. 

  1. Guards at the Taj premieres in Asia in November 2018. Why should people come watch the play and what is the one thing you want the audience to take away from the play?

That we need and love dreamers and madmen and beauty in our lives. They can destroy us but like moths to the flame we are drawn to these things. Is it wrong? No. Yes. We are paradoxes we humans. Maybe we should be more brave to face our contradictions. Maybe we aren’t brave enough to live our lives to its fullness, but we need the catharsis of watching other people attempting to do just that. We may laugh at them but it's bitter sweet, this tragic-comedy we call life. And we need catharsis. We need to laugh and cry and be revolted and be compelled. 

  1. Tell us one reason why people should be excited about Guards at the Taj?

It’s Bloody. Funny. So says the poster. But I think you will laugh and shiver at the same time. And I hope you will be overwhelmed.

Guards at the Taj will play at the KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT from 14 November 2018. Get your tickets here.

Published on: 13-08-2018