Note: The following review dates from November 2002 and an earlier tour stop of this production.
The mighty Taj Mahal. One of the seven wonders of the world, built in the 17th century by the great Moghul leader Shahjahan to commemorate his beloved wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their 14th child. On most people's list of places to visit before they depart this earth, and now the peg upon which The Big Picture Company has opted to hang its acclaimed Asian theatrical cloak.
After a perplexing opening, in which Nicholas Immaculate's opulent Period costumes catch the eye, we meet Maryam, a bright young British Asian woman arriving in India. As the scenes unfold, we learn that Maryam is terminally ill with cancer, and has journeyed from England on a pilgrimage to her past.
During a visit to Mumtaz's tomb, and aided by the powerful drugs that control her pain, Maryam encounters the ghost of the former Queen. She reveals to her the troubles of her marriage to Shajahan, and begs the use of Maryam's physical form in order to speak to her husband. As past and present blur, each character's life is unfurled and intertwined, and eternal themes such as love, death, passion, jealousy and faith are explored.
Taj is more than a tragedy. You find yourself weighed down by sadness but later chuckling at Maryam's black humour. There's also elements of mystery to ponder and an enthralling Islamic history lesson to soak up.
Laila Vakil as the lead Maryam is excellent. Playing a woman coming to terms with death, she discharges her part with the perfect blend of melancholy, anger and bitter sweet reflection. As master craftsman Suleman, Narinder Samra gives an alluring performance that brims with eastern mystique.
Benjamin Jones looks the part of Shahjahan but his reading is one-dimensional and his passion unconvincing. At times he appears nervous and fails to invoke the powerful aura that would surely have surrounded a man like Shahjahan. As Mumtaz, Natalia Campbell does her best with an undernourished part.
Played out on Leslie Travers's minimalist set, Uzma Hameed's script draws heavily on Moghul art and poetry, and at times the dialogue echoes Shakespeare in full flow, rich and beautiful to listen to. The production is well paced, with the continuous one hour and 45 minute performance broken into pleasantly digestible scenes.
Multimedia elements of the show are enriching without being too obtrusive; Paul Clark's compositions range from traditional tabla fare to thumping bass tracks, while Rachel Harris's choreography is edgy and aggressive.
It's very refreshing to see an Asian theatre ensemble move away from tired themes like cultural identity, and Hameed (who also directs) deserves great praise for a clever script that delves into India's rich and colourful past for inspiration.
Recommended to anyone who loves a good story, but especially those who Think Shajahan and Mumtaz are merely the names of local takeaways.
- Alex Waddington (reviewed at Bradford's Alhambra Studio Theatre)