TAJ
The Big Picture Company
(Touring Production)
As uncomfortable as the seats in The Alhambra Studio Theatre are, Iím pleased to report even aching knee joints and a numb backside couldnít spoil my enjoyment of Taj, the latest production from The Big Picture Company, one of the UKís leading British Asian theatre ensembles.

The play revolves around the famous Taj Mahal in India, built in the 17th century by the great Moghul leader Shahjahan as a monument for his beloved queen Mumtaz, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.

As the play moves from its slightly perplexing opening in the past to the present day, we meet Maryam, an intelligent young British Asian woman whoís just arrived in India. As the scenes unfold, itís revealed Maryam is terminally ill with cancer, and is embarking on a pilgrimage to her past.

During a visit to Mumtazís tomb, and aided by the powerful drugs that control her pain, she encounters the ghost of the former Queen. Jealous of Maryamís freedom, Mumtaz begs her to speak with Shahjahan and Suleman, the master craftsmen of the tomb who, according to legend, had his hands removed to stop him creating anything to rival the great Taj.

As present and past merge, details of each characterís life are revealed and intertwined, and eternal themes such as love, death, passion, jealousy and faith are explored.

Taj is essentially a tragedy, but also so much more besides. You find yourself weighed down by sadness at times, but later chuckling at Maryamís black humour. Thereís also elements of mystery to unravel, and an enthralling Islamic history lesson to soak up.

Played out on a minimalist set, consisting of two tables and a large semi-transparent projection screen that splits the stage, the script draws heavily on Moghul art and poetry. In some scenes, the dialogue echoes Shakespeare in full flow, rich and beautiful to listen to.

In the lead role of Maryam, Laila Vakil is excellent. Playing a woman coming to terms with death, she carries off her part with the perfect blend of melancholy, anger and bitter sweet reflection. As Suleman, Narinder Samra is memorable for his opulent Nicholas Immaculate-designed costume, and gives an enchanting performance that brims with eastern mystique.

Benjamin Jonesís handsome features ensure he looks the part of Shahjahan, but his delivery is rather one-dimensional and his passion unconvincing. He appears nervous at times, and fails to convey the powerful aura that would surely have surrounded a man like Shahjahan. In the part of Mumtaz, Natalia Campbell does her best with a weak and undernourished character.

The play is perfectly paced, with the one hour and 45 minute performance broken into short scenes that never dwell too long on a theme. The multimedia elements of the show also provide welcome mental breaks; Paul Clarkís musical compositions range from traditional tabla fare to thumping bass tracks, while Rachel Harrisís dance choreography is edgy and aggressive. For the most part, the video footage enhances the production, although itís difficult to fathom the relevance of certain psychedelic broadcasts.

Itís very refreshing to see an Asian theatre group moving away from tired themes like cultural identity, and director and writer Uzma Hameed deserves much praise for a cracking script that cleverly delves into Indiaís rich and colourful past for inspiration.

The various threads and themes of Taj take some tying together, and itís one of those wonderful plays you can discuss with your theatre companion all the way home and beyond. But Taj is by no means difficult to understand, and everyone should find something to treasure in this sparkling jewel of a play.

Venue: The Alhambra Studio Theatre, Bradford.
Date:
19th November 2002
Rating:
4/ 5
Reviewed by:
Alex Waddington
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Forthcoming Performances

Riverside Studios, London
4th February 2003 to 22nd February 2003