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Taj

Uzma Hameed
The Big Picture Company touring - Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2002)

The Taj Mahal - the Crown Palace - was built by the Moghul emperor Shahjahan as a tomb for his queen, Mumtaz. The name Mumtaz shortens to Taj, so the Taj Mahal is also Taj's Palace.

Taj is a multi-layered piece, combining the stories of Mumtaz and Shahjahan, of Suleman the architect and of Maryam, a modern British Asian woman who is dying of cancer. The stories run parallel to each other, and yet they also intertwine as Maryam and Taj - both ghosts, for in the seventeenth century segment Taj is already dead and Maryam is a "ghost" from the future - combine.

The great love of Taj and Shahjahan contrasts strongly with the failed marriage of Maryam and Martin; the battles fought by Shahjahan reflect Maryam's fight against the cancer within her, and the Taj Mahal itself become, not just a monument to love, but also a monument to death.

The story is complex, and so is its telling. Dance, video, drama and music combine with a very flexible set which includes a screen which doubles as video screen and gauze (scrim), and at one point swivels around its central point, like a great revolving door, to take a part in the action.

The dance elements are strongly influenced by Indian dance and, at one point, Suleman becomes a whirling dervish, whilst the music is a fusion of eastern and contemporary western. The costumes of the three seventeenth century characters are appropriate to the Moghul empire, whilst Maryam's modern safari suit has strong overtones of the earlier period.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at least confusion, and at the end of the first half it was clear than many in the audience - this reviewer included! - were not at all sure where it was going. I overheard one audience member say, doubtfully, "Well, the acting's good"! Paradoxically, although the complexity deepened in the second half, the overall picture became much clearer and, by the end, we had experienced a satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable production.

Writer Uzma Hameed, the company's artistic director, directed and the cast of four - Natalia Campbell (Mumtaz), Benjamin Jones (Shajahan), Narinder Samra (Suleman) and Laila Vakil (Maryam) - impressed throughout.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan