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BWW Interview: Playwright Rajiv Joseph On GUARDS AT THE TAJ

Rajiv Joseph in rehearsal

Rajiv Joseph's work includes the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Nurse Jackie and Draft Day. Guards at the Taj, his 2015 play about imperial guards in 17th-century India handed a gruesome decree, has its European premiere at the Bush Theatre, beginning previews on 7 April.

What was the impetus for this play?

It's something I was developing for a while. My father is from India, and I've been to the Taj Mahal several times - we first visited when I was 10, and I think that's when the ideal initially pierced my imagination. It was the myths and legends associated with it - the building of it and the reasons behind it. That stayed with me for many years.

Then after graduate school I started writing something for lots of actors, this epic, sweeping play that involved the emperor and the architect, and it was quite boring. It became this huge mess, so I threw it away. Later I realised the two most interesting characters were the two guys on the side, commenting on the action - these two guards.

It's interesting, we've got a revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Old Vic at the moment - did plays like that inspire the new form?

Initially I wasn't thinking about writing a different version of the play - I just threw it away in a rage! I decided to move onto something else, and I did. But I kept thinking about it, and I finally wondered if this was what it was really meant to be.

Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok
in rehearsal

What led you to the tonal mix - almost a buddy comedy with something more serious?

That's where I live as a writer. I'm drawn to darker themes and to dark comedy. For me what was important about this play was the friendship between these two men - that's the centre of it. It's this bond and the testing of it, all the trials and tribulations that come their way. Sometimes that's humorous, sometimes it's painful.

Have you discussed tone with directors, and the use of contemporary vernacular?

With both Jamie [Lloyd] and the other directors I've worked with in the US, everyone seems to intuitively understand my intentions - that balance of period and contemporary, comedy and drama, personal and political. I feel very lucky to have Jamie and two great actors here, Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan. They're really smart and creative guys, and I've already heard new aspects of the story and learned new things about the characters through them.

Have you made any changes for the British team?

I haven't found anything to be that different over here so far. I've asked the director and actors to alert me if something doesn't translate, but hopefully it's a universal story written in a universal way. It's not necessary American slang, but a heightened theatrical language mixed with the ordinary, casual language between two friends.

What inspired that friendship?

The one thing I knew from the get-go is they're old friends who were already starting to be separated by the authority of the adult world - one of them perceives that authority with more reverence than the other. That's a common conflict that happens in our lives; as we grow up, one grows up faster than the other, or one starts to abandon imagination and creativity in favour of meeting the expectations of the dry adult world. That can be heartbreaking.

The original epic play I developed was more about power versus art, but that was too didactic and too obvious - people in power are bad, artists are good. So to find two friends caught up in something they can't fully recognise, that felt more complicated and interesting. And the really profound effect of this act they're ordered to commit - it becomes much more about that individual response and relationship rather than just a comment on power.

Darren Kuppan and Danny Ashok
in rehearsal

How do you think the current global context will shape an audience's response?

I'm actually working on two other new plays at the moment that are overtly political - I started them a couple of years ago, and they have certainly shifted in intensity. The same will be true of Guards at the Taj. The world, especially in the US and the UK, seems to be in upheaval right now, so plays and stories that live in the political realm inevitably become more sharply focussed. It wasn't my intention, and if I had my way none of this would have happened, but these stories have become resonant in an urgent way.

Do you think writers have a duty to engage with the political?

Duty is not necessarily a word I'd use. I feel writers living in times such as these will inevitably reflect them; it's a natural cause of events for artists to do that. Not everyone will - there's obviously more escapist entertainment too, and that's great - but I generally write about things that concern me on a global level.

Did your time in the Peace Corps influence that?

The Peace Corps helped me become a writer and helped me stay a writer. It shaped how I see the world and global politics. The greatest thing it gave me was to widen my perspective - I can say, very proudly, that I haven't lived my whole life in the US, that I lived for those years in west Africa. It changed how I view people, politics, culture, communication, storytelling, and those kind of things continue to inform me.

Is it a deliberate choice to make ethnically diverse work?

It just happens. Often a play for me begins with a character I want to be with - someone I want to hear. My perspective will enter into that. I'm mixed-race - my father is from India, my mother is white, and I grew up in Cleveland but with a foot in both cultures. I've travelled a lot of the world. So the people I'm interested in aren't always homogenous. That's the inevitability of my process.

Jamie Lloyd, Danny Ashok and
Darren Kuppan in rehearsal

Have you had problems getting work seen by a wider audience because of that?

It's not a barrier in New York or LA. If it's not produced regionally, I have a suspicion it's because people think they won't have the actors to play the Middle Eastern roles I've written. I find that's untrue - it's a laziness. They are out there; there are really small theatres in the Midwest who have successfully produced my more challenging plays casting wise, just by being creative and brave and finding people out there. So I do think producers need to think about that more and be ambitious and their casting process - not to be intimidated by what they see as an impossibility.

How do you find writing for theatre compared with screen?

I enjoy writing for theatre more because the playwright has more power in terms of what stays on the page. When you write a screenplay, producers, directors and actors can come along and change the words without asking, so sometimes the end product can be weaker than what you started out with.

I still enjoy TV as well and I'll continue to do that. We are in this golden age of programming, with Netflix and Amazon becoming big players in the game. What's really heartening is playwrights finding lots of work through that, as networks realise playwrights are storytellers and they produce great dialogue. I think that's one of the things contributing to the quality of work being so high.

Are there other writers you look to for inspiration?

Of course. Many current playwrights: Stephen Adly Guirgis, Lynn Nottage, Martin McDonagh, Tony Kushner, Annie Baker, Katori Hall...

Finally, what can audiences expect from Guards at the Taj?

It's a darkly funny, visceral experience. My hope is people are deeply moved by this friendship, and can leave thinking about the way that power affects our personal relationships in life.

Guards at the Taj at the Bush Theatre 7 April-20 May

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author Marianka Swain