The Vienna Theatre Project production explores the limits of friendship in a witty and intimate performance.

When low-rank Imperial Guard Humayun carefully but eagerly turns around at the crack of dawn to see the Taj Mahal for the the first time, he is so taken with its beauty he thinks the moon has fallen. Little does he know he will soon wish to never see it again.

Vienna Theatre Project’s newest production, Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, intimately shows the friendship between two opposites. There’s stern and conservative Humayun, played by Diljohn Singh who subtly captures the emotional layers behind his inflexible character; and playful Babur, portrayed endearingly by John Afzal.

Engaging in fast and witty dialogue that avoids stereotypes, the relationship between the two is established in just a few minutes: as the Taj Mahal shines abstractly behind them, both men stand guard, and in one of many moments where he breaks the mandatory silence, Babur refers to Humayun as his brother. The taller guard quickly settles the matter, however: “We’re not brothers, we’re just friends.” And friendship can be broken.

The long first scene, which would have benefitted from even less movement on Singh’s part to emphasize Humayun’s professionality, slowly builds tension towards the revelation of an unthinkable truth: insulted by a request from the builders to see their work first, Shah Jahan decrees that nothing shall ever surpass the Taj Mahal’s beauty. To ensure that, Babur and Hamayun are ordered to cut off all 20,000 workers’ hands.  

Directors Joanna Godwin-Seidl and David Wurawa present the horror of the guards’ assignment gut-wrenchingly well: the monotonous sounds of cutting are nauseating. The lighting evokes both the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the horror of a room drenched in blood.

vienna theatre project guards at the taj
© viennatheatreproject

It is then that the play goes from static to expressively physical, the lighthearted tone taking on a chilling urgency given the new context. Terrified and upset, the two friends attempt to comfort one another, chattering on about seemingly impossible inventions to cope. “When I was chopping, I thought about things I could invent.” Babur imagines a flying machine to take them to the stars, far away from their horrendous deeds. But even fantasy offers no refuge: At night, Babur dreams that his flying machines turn against them and attack.

Were the two men “just doing their jobs?” Humayun cannot fathom a world without the powerful and powerless, but Babur believes obedience has its limits. As the two explore loyalty and self-preservation in the face of arbitrary power, Guards at the Taj offers no easy answers, forcing the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Through May 9, Theater Drachengasse. viennatheatreproject.com